Title: The Prague Cemetery
Author: Umberto Eco
Release Date: November 8, 2011
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Nineteenth-century Europe was rife with conspiracies. In this daring novel, Umberto Eco imagines one man – Captain Simonini – to be at the center of all of these plots.
I will start this review by saying that The Prague Cemetery is a novel that went completely over my head. I’m sure it’s a “literary tour de force” and all that, but for me, it was an incredibly difficult and slow read. I had trouble following the plot, I had no idea what was going on most of the time, and I despised the main character. That being said, at moments, Eco’s brilliance would shine through the cracks, and in those moments of clarity, I could see what he was trying to do – and in most parts, succeeded at doing. I just wish I had a bigger brain so I could grasp it all.
Let’s start with the main character, Captain Simonini. From the beginning, readers are aware that he suffers from some kind of multiple personality disorder. This immediately puts questions in the reader’s mind about his reliability as a narrator. Simonini tirades about all the people, cultural, and religious groups that he despises, and it seems to include everyone in 19th century Europe besides himself. He’s a dirty, despicable character, brimming with anti-Semitism (which he doesn’t hide), and it’s hard to find even the slightest redeeming quality about him. Of course, the reader isn’t supposed to like him, but he’s so awful that it made me feel filthy just reading about him.
Simonini flits from group to group, using a variety of disguises as well as his multiple personality disorder, and somehow becomes involved in just about every movement of the time period. Through this, readers have a brilliant and comprehensive view of the history, with this one man to tie all these conspiracies, secret organizations, and spy groups together. It’s incredibly done, and I can’t imagine how deep Eco’s research must have been in order to accomplish this. But the storytelling hampers any sort of coherent plot thread – it’s being told after-the-fact, through Simonini and his alter ego in diary form, as they try to reconstruct the past. I cannot begin to describe how difficult this makes it to follow.
In short, if you’re fascinated by nineteenth century European history, or are extremely fluent with the time period, this is a novel you will probably really appreciate. There are all kinds of jokes and hidden meanings between the lines, and if you get them, you probably will love this novel. I don’t think I need to say that I did not get them. I found this book to be a completely exhausting read. I had to put so much thought and brain power into it, and even after doing that, I feel as though I only scratched the surface. While this novel is completely brilliant, it unfortunately wasn’t an enjoyable read for me.