Review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Nineteenth-century Europe abounds with conspiracy both ghastly and mysterious. Jesuits plot against Freemasons. Italian priests are strangled with their own intestines. French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate black masses by night. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. 

But what if, behind all of these conspiracies, lies just one man?

This is the first Umberto Eco book I have ever read and I went into it blind, having heard nothing about it and read no reviews on it. I think I was expecting some sherlockian thriller written in omniscient third person with the mastermind behind all these conspiracies lurking in the shadows. I was thrown into something completely different.

It is best to read a little on the Italian Unification, Freud, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Dreyfus Case before starting this book. Eco writes a story that is impossible to read without learning more about the history of this time period. Apparently this is the case in his other books too.

The book is partly in first person diary form and partly in third person. A man finds he cannot remember who he is and what he has been doing. The story is told from three view points; Captain Simonini, Abbe Dalla Piccola and the mysterious narrator. All three are trying to find out the series of events and each one is an unreliable witness.

Simonini is an unlikeable protagonist and that is understating it. He had no redeeming features and I quite easily despised him. Starting with a very long and passionate rant about every race and culture in europe (which was darkly humourous at how hysterical it was)he settles on one group of Peoples to focus his hatred on; the jews. The book is filled with his bile spewing out with every motive in what he does. The long and cleverly plotted story is filled with real historical figures and events, Simonini being the only fictional character. The way conspiracy and lies has been woven into the fabric of history is extremely disturbing. People have said this is a dangerous book. It is dangerous only if you do not listen to the message Eco illustrates quite clearly. That if this demonisation could happen so subtly ingraining itself into society, that a fabricated, many fabricated documents could persuade people to listen to a man like Hitler what could stop this from happening again? Human nature hasn’t really changed what if this is happening around us right now?

The book is embroidered with history, many different threads and stories intertwined together and also with lavish descriptions of food. Also there are many original illustrations some of which are highly disturbing anti-semitic drawings. The whole effect is one an Victorian novel. Hundreds of events and stories that are historically factual are peppered throughout. I enjoyed the detail Eco went into.

“It was now that marvellous year of 1848. Every student was delighted with the ascension to the papacy of Cardinal Mastai Ferretti- Pius XI- who had granted an amnesty for political crimes two years earlier. The year had begun with the first protests in Milan against the Austrians, where citizens had stopped smoking to damage the revenues of the imperial government (those Milanese comrades, who stood firm when soldiers and police provoked them by blowing clouds of sweet-scented cigar smoke at them, were seen by my Turin companions as heroes).”

This is the most difficult book I have ever read because Eco demands that you educate yourself about the intricacies of the history to read it. I had to force myself to pick it up several times to continue and make myself read a chapter a day. But sometimes I lost myself and three chapters flew by. It is also then one of the most satisfying books I have ever read and I know now more about conspiracy than I did before opening the book. I will definitely be reading another of Uberto Eco’s books; maybe the Name of the Rose; his most well-known work. I might wait a while before diving into another of his books though!

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