Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: THE PRAGUE CEMETERY: A Novel by Umberto Eco [Vol. 4, #22.5]

A Review of

The Prague Cemetery: A Novel.
Umberto Eco

Hardback: Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by David Johnson

A sensitive reader might get the impression while reading The Prague Cemetery that Umberto Eco does not much care what you, think about him as an author or the story he has to tell. In a note at the front of the book, Eco envisions one of two kinds of people who might flip through his pages. The first has no idea that the events described in the book actually happened. This reader, accidentally drawn from the great unwashed masses, “knows nothing about nineteenth-century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously.” The second reader, on the other hand, understands the historical and contemporary significance of said events. To this reader Eco would perhaps append the adjectives “educated” and “worthy.” I don’t know why Eco felt it necessary to start the reading experience off so combatively, but while this attitude would make him a wearisome dinner guest, it needn’t necessarily stand in the way of a good story.

In addition to being a sometimes novelist, Umberto Eco is a philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and author of dozens of learned books a wide variety of topics, from medieval history to mass media and culture. He made his name in literary circles with his first novel, The Name of the Rose, a quest for a mythical lost work of Aristotle that is, in fact, a Dan Brown-esque page-turner that does not make you feel dumb inside.[1]

Published just over three decades later, The Prague Cemetery, Eco’s fifth novel, is told through a series of journals and letters written by and between Captain Simone Simonini (a racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, spy, forger, master of disguise, and proprietor of the seedy Parisian pawn shop he uses as a front) and Abbé Dalla Piccola (a pietistic and self-righteous Catholic priest).[2] Interspersed throughout book are chapters, written by an unnamed narrator, that summarize large swaths of the journals and letters thought by this unnamed narrator to be too boring. The story wanders through the history of Europe from 1830 through 1898, pausing along the way to insert Simonini into historical events such as the unification of Italy, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, and, finally, the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. On the surface, The Prague Cemetery appears to be cut from the same cloth as The Name of the Rose, but Eco unfortunately remained faithful to a premise that is interesting in theory but that ultimately got in the way of a good story.

The premise? What if there was one man—Captain Simonini—behind some of the most significant events in Europe during the late nineteenth century? And what if this man wakes up one morning to find he can’t remember significant chunks of the previous month? And what if he discovers there is a priest living in a room attached to his apartment by a secret hallway who seems to have knowledge—discovered through the surreptitious reading of his journals and letters—of the days (and only those days) that Simonini can’t remember? As Simonini attempts to reconcile all of this, the novel meanders toward the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and to his moment of self-discovery (discovered by the reader about 300 pages earlier), but by the time you arrive at the book’s destination you only wish that Eco had taken a page or two from Dan Brown.

In the aforementioned author’s note, Eco makes a point to emphasize that Captain Simonini is the only fictional character of any consequence in the novel, an assertion confirmed through research conducted by this reviewer on a randomly selected sampling of characters. For example, very old Europeans as well as students of nineteenth-century history may recognize Guiseppe Garibaldi,[3] Leo Taxil,[4] or possibly Edouard Drumont[5]. These and many (many) others flit in an out of the book, not as developed characters but as a parade of names that reveal Eco’s thorough command of European history but do little in service of a coherent story.

Eco seems to understand this—at one point Simonini writes that his mind is a “continual cloud” and that he is letting his pen wander wherever his instinct leads. And in an appendix titled “Useless Learned Explanations,” Eco includes a timeline for the reader “who is not so quick on the uptake” along with the note that “the Narrator, to be honest, has often found it difficult finding his own way around, but feels a competent reader need not become lost in the detail and enjoy the story just the same.” The incompetent reader is left wondering what he or she ever did to get on the wrong side of Umberto Eco.

From The Name of the Rose to The Prague Cemetery, Eco has repeatedly turned to conspiracies as a narrative device in his fiction and he imbues a great deal of significance on the relationship between the historical record and the events and people depicted in his newest novel. Returning again to the author’s note and his ideal reader, Eco writes,  “The fact that history can be quite so devious may cause this reader’s brow to become lightly beaded with sweat. He will look anxiously behind him, switch on all the lights, and suspect that these things could happen again today. In fact, they may be happening in that very moment. And he will think, as I do: ‘They are still among us…’” If not for the fact that he had pejoratively referenced Dan Brown and his readers just lines earlier, I would assume that Eco was having a little fun here, but I think he’s serious.

There are the makings of a good story in The Prague Cemetery, maybe even two or three, but instead we have what seem like research notes hastily formed into something loosely resembling a novel. Midway through the book, Captain Simonini accurately describes my experience reading The Prague Cemetery: “I didn’t understand the link between the various events he was describing, but the story seemed to revolve around the continual threat from three evil powers that were surreptitiously taking over the world…” Yep, that’s about right.

[1] Since it was published 18 year before Dan Brown’s first novel, calling The Name of the Rose “Dan Brown-esque” isn’t really accurate or fair, but you get the idea.

[2] Ladies and gentlemen: your narrators for the next 438 pages! Oh, and I’m not giving anything away here, but Simonini and Piccola are almost certainly the same person.

[3] Garibaldi was, among other things, the leader of the Thousand Red Shirts, a rag-tag band of fighters that drove a much larger Neapolitan force from the capital of Sicily.

[4] The French author of numerous anti-Catholic books who subsequently faked a conversion to Catholicism in order to publish a series of pamphlets asserting that the Freemasons worship Satan only to call a nineteenth-century style press conference to say his conversion and all the Freemason stuff was a hoax.

[5] Drumont, the founder of the Antisemitic League of France, was a vocal accuser of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew framed by as a spy in 1894 only to be exonerated after spending two years in isolation on Devil’s Island.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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One Comment

  1. I think Eco is always trying to weed out his readers–making them wander through a labyrinth, figurative or literal–so as to reward the “worthy.”  But, that is not so much elitism as it is part and parcel with his point, his plots, his purpose in writing semiotic novels in the first place.  It is to be rid of those who think Dan Brown is actually readable–and to be rid of those who think that Eco novels are “Dan Brown-esque.”