The Prague Cemetery
By: Umberto Eco
19th-century Europe—from Turin to Prague to Paris—abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious. Conspiracies rule history. Jesuits plot against Freemasons. Italian republicans strangle priests with their own intestines. French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate Black Masses at night. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. From the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Europe is in tumult and everyone needs a scapegoat. But what if, behind all of these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay one lone man? What if that evil genius created its most infamous document?
This is the second book I’ve read by Umberto Eco. I read The Name of the Rose a few years ago but have been meaning to re-read it; I don’t think I quite appreciated the depth and scope of the novel the first time around. Anyways, I picked up this novel because the premise sounded intriguing–the 19th century indeed was a period fraught with all sorts of upheavals and turnovers–and knowing now what to expect form an Eco novel, I was prepared to exercise a bit of brain power to understand the novel. Contains some spoilers ahead!
The strength of this novel lies in the portrayal/setting of the 19th century. Eco deftly shows the uncertainty of the times: periods of revolutions, turnovers in ideas and dominant perspectives, social upheavals but also the problems associated with these developments. For example, we see Italy doing away with the old order as Cavour and his associates are sweeping across the Italian peninsula in efforts of uniting it. They bar the old order from office and other positions of prominence but then realise afterwards that they’re the literate ones and they need literate people to occupy these positions. The novel shows how conspiracies and upheavals unfold in several places–Italy, France, Russia (by hearsay)–and how the main character Simonini plays a role in them.
A major theme in this novel is anti-Semitism, which was ripe during this period and plays a more organised role during this period. The reader sees how different groups utilise anti-Semitic feelings at different times but also how deeply rooted these feelings are in this period. It’s disturbing to see exactly how ingrained the hate for Jews is in the main character of this novel, despite of the fact that he mentions time and again how a) his grandfather went on and on about how much he despised the Jews and b) how much the main character sort of rejected or scoffed at his grandfather’s ways. So how did the main character end up perpetuating these ideas? His hate also extends to those in the religious orders, secret societies, other peoples, even his own people sometimes–the first chapter or two alone was a very strange read as he writes why he hates each people–the Germans, the English, the Italians, even the French even though he identifies the most with the French. It does not help that Simonini is surrounded by people who hate different groups of people at different extents.
Speaking of which, the main character Simonini is, simply put, disturbing. The further I read the novel, following his narration, the more ill I felt because of the amount of hate that exudes from his character. It’s absolutely suffocating. He clearly appears to be suffering from some kind of psychological disorder–I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to what disorder it is–and throws the validity/accuracy of the narrative itself into question. He hates everyone yet he can somehow relate to them on some level. He’s indoctrinated to these ideas–as mentioned, the anti-Semitic feelings he portrays–and yet he does not refute them so it’s hard to feel any shred of sympathy for this character (if indeed his psychological problems are as deep as they are). Does the contradiction in his character somehow represent the uncertainty of the period? I suppose that’s one way of interpreting him in terms of the novel itself but looking at the character alone, he’s hate-concentrated.
Story-wise, there was something about the conspiracies that kept me reading onward. The interest however did start tapering off in the last third of the novel (starting from the chapter involving Taxly) when the occult elements were brought in. I felt it was completely off-putting in comparison to the earlier half of the novel dealing with the political and social implications of revolutions and for me it didn’t really add anything to the story. Plus, it was just disturbing.
Overall, I’m not sure why one reviewer (which was featured inside my copy) called this novel a hopeful one. While this book sheds light on the basis of hate against the other, it does not show much on how to dispel or counter such hate either through other characters or situations. While it was an interesting read in terms of looking at the chaos that was rampant in the 19th century, it was a rather depressing and disturbing read. Hence the 2.5 rather than a 3-star rating.