Friday, February 3, 2012

Review: The Prague Cemetery

Prague Cemetery
The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco: Spider web of 19th century European conspiracies. Relentlessly depressing novel. C+

From The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco (2010):

Open quote 

At the end of that alleyway, quite inconspicuous, was the window of a junk shop that a faded sign extolled as Brocantage de Qualité -- a window whose glass was covered by such a thick layer of dust that it was hard to see the goods on display or the interior, each pane being little more than 20 centimeters square, all held together by a wooden frame. Beside the window ... a door, always shut, and a notice beside the bell pull announcing that the proprietor was temporarily absent."

After the jump, my review.

So begins the story of Captain Simone Simonini, a Paris shopkeeper, forger, racist, bigot, and the least sympathetic main character in literature you'll ever come across. The Prague Cemetery is the most disturbing "novel" that I think I've ever read. I say disturbing because of how Simonini's increasingly anti-Semitic fabrications gradually take over the novel. I put "novel" in quotes because almost all of the characters are real (except for the main character Simonini), the settings are real, the events are historical. That's what contributes to the disturbing nature of the novel.

Modern conspiracy theorists who see evil in the Trilateral Commission, the World Bank, the United Nations, etc. have nothing on 19th Century Europe. In The Prague Cemetery Umberto Eco brings that era's conspiracy theories all to life -- Freemasons, Jesuits, socialists, communists, anarchists, bankers, and somehow thought to be behind them all with a plot for world domination, the Jews.

Eco's protagonist, Simonini, fabricates conspiracies at the request of various secret police agencies, either to serve the governments' own interests or out of Simonini's own self interest. The novel is full of dealing, double-dealing, backstabbing, framing, blackmailing, spying and counterspying. Simonini manages to wend his way through all the plots without misstep, profiting as he goes, perhaps because his ultimate loyalty is only to himself.

In his diary, Simonini records his adventurous life, which placed him at the scene of many pivotal events in the history of 19th century Europe. His purpose in putting pen to paper is to try to make sense of it all. He's not even sure which of two characters he himself is, as sometimes he writes in his diary as himself, sometimes he finds entries in the diary written by a second character, the Abbe Dalla Piccola.

The Prague Cemetery is part psychological thriller, mystery, history, and adventure, but above all, a conspiracy story extraordinaire. It features a distasteful character, unpleasant subject matter, and challenging writing. Overall it's a captivating recreation of a fascinating era.

The biggest flaw is not the disturbing story, but the fact that Eco loses the story about halfway through. The Prague Cemetery gradually becomes less about Simonini and more about his despicable conspiracy theories. Early on, I anticipated giving the novel a grade of A-, but I was so worn down by the end, I changed the grade to C+. Reader beware. This novel is not for everyone. In fact, I'm not sure it's for anyone. Still, I'm glad I read it. How do you classify a novel like that?

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