Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, is a writer of veritable talent. Eco compels readers by focusing his twisted microscope on our pasts to observe the brutality of human nature in different eras of history. The Prague Cemetery follows the characteristic Eco style with histrionic digressive back-stories that uncover the insidious havoc of fear and power and their effects on society.
The Prague Cemetery takes the Anti-Semitic atmosphere in ninteenth century Europe and guides us through every convoluted, demonic detail of how it spread. Eco catalogs the foundation for the European culture of Anti-Semitism through a motley cast of characters, labyrinthine cloak and dagger religious plots and a morbid touch of black humor. Although this is amusing, it can be trying for the reader. This is because Eco employs three narrators, each with their own special font, to tell a story that at times feel like a game of literary slapstick.
It begins with Simoni Simonini (ahem), an aging master of forgery who wants to tell us a story in hope of himself figuring out where it all went wrong. Soon the reader realizes that Simoni Simonini is also our second narrator, Abbé Dalla Piccola, and these alter egos communicate through Simonini’s diary entries. They live in the same house and when Simonini becomes the Abbé, he dress in a cassock and roams the streets of Paris only to return to their apartment and fall asleep. When he awakes, he has no idea that he has inhabited the personality of the Abbé. Perhaps this reveals a bit too much about my own comedic foundations, but whenever I hear of a man dressing in a cassock, a series of scenes from the early Woody Allen movies oscillates in my mind. The third narrator is in third person and more objective, but nonetheless entertaining.
As soon as we parse out who is telling the story when, Eco reveals an invented a document, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which appeared in the early 1900’s as the minutes of a secret meeting in the Prague Cemetery to outline how the Jews were going to take over the world. Along with Simonini’s hatred of everyone—Freemasons, Jacobeans, Jesuits—he is fueled by an unabashed paranoia and hatred of Jews. He spends his entire life as the bumbling traitor, loyal to only those who plan to stop the Jews, haphazardly killing people he just did business with to cover up his own mistakes.
Along the way, we are treated to appearances from famous characters in history related to this document including Eugenie Sue, Maurice Joly and Alexander Dumas that add to the legitimacy of the story as well as infusing it with a bit more accessibility.
The difficulty in reading The Prague Cemetery is that there really isn’t any single character for the reader to latch onto for the ride. They are all horrible, which gives testimony to Eco’s gift as a writer—making the unlikable narrators engaging enough for us to not care that they are unlikable, but we don’t spend enough time with any of them to establish a sense of trust with the writer. The reader wants to know who is truly telling the story. In this case, it feels like the narrators are mere decoys for the real character which is the ubiquitous Anti-Semitism.
It’s a novel of conspiracy theories and awful people who do awful things. By showing us the foibles and failings of the Simonini/Abbé, it’s easier to keep reading because Eco let’s us see through the first person points-of-view the insanity of their hatred and the nature of denial, which is manifested through the split personality of Simonini and the Abbé.
The Prague Cemetery is vintage Eco. The problem is, as masterful as it is, it’s not as enjoyable as his former works. Readers will be impressed by his exhaustive research, his imaginative take on structure and the purpose of the novel—to expose Anti-Semitism. But in the end, when it’s all read, you’ll be happy that it’s over, that you have rid yourself of your stay with Simonini and the Abbé. And like exposing a conspiracy of hatred, there’s a sense of relief and right alongside that relief, is the awareness that doesn’t necessarily mean we are the better for it. Eco leaves us with that same feeling and the urge to cleanse ourselves from our own sullied pasts.
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