The Prague Cemetery
“Umberto Eco is one of just a handful of writers that can be trusted to take me by the hand and lead me into a world that, on first glimpse, I don’t want to venture into. Although I may not wish to stay forever in that world, I am always glad that I was in it for a while because it makes me think. . . . a masterpiece, a word too often bandied about for a long and long-awaited work, but in this case the word fits.”
Scapegoats have been useful throughout history. This is clear in The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco’s brilliant and eagerly awaited new novel.
Scapegoats have been culled from the same weary groups, with the Jews most often shoved into the role. This, too, is sadly clear in The Prague Cemetery.
The novel is set in Europe in the 19th century, which was a time of great upheaval, when terrible and strange events were perpetrated by a dizzying group of characters. Here is just a sampling of what was going on: There were bomb plots in France, exploding ships, an erupting volcano, female Satanists taking part in black Masses, Freemasons squaring off against Jesuits, and Italian republicans choking priests with their own disemboweled intestines.
And all of these events and characters play supporting roles—in this theater of the absurd—to Mr. Eco’s main focus, the creation of the infamous and discredited The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document that has made antiSemites, including Adolf Hitler, believe they had “proof” of a Jewish plot to take over the world. Here, in The Prague Cemetery, Mr. Eco offers up the chilling idea that one man was behind all the real and invented conspiracies, and that he was the one who created the Protocols.
That one man, Mr. Eco’s main character and narrator, is so filled with hatred, and disgusting beliefs about every race and sex so that it is impossible to find even a glimmer of redeeming quality in him. His name is Simone Simonini and in addition to his hate mongering, he finds time to be a forger, a killer, and a spy. He also suffers from a split personality—something that he slowly comes to realize— and lives as both Captain Simonini, a conspirator, and as Abbé Dalla Piccola, a strange priest.
The scope of Mr. Eco’s knowledge and his ability to work so much of it into his novels is astonishing. Some readers might say that he works too much of this knowledge into his books, and that the voluminous, extra information such as is found in The Prague Cemetery, while adding richness to the world he has created, also causes the story to get lost from time to time. That argument might be justified, but I prefer to have that richness and accept the obligation to play my part as a reader: Stay alert, reread passages as necessary, and have faith in what a superb writer like this one can do.
Umberto Eco is one of just a handful of writers that can be trusted to take me by the hand and lead me into a world that, on first glimpse, I don’t want to venture into. Although I may not wish to stay forever in that world, I am always glad that I was in it for a while because it makes me think.
The Prague Cemetery is a masterpiece, a word too often bandied about for a long and long-awaited work, but in this case the word fits. It is controversial, as well. Hopefully, the novel will also make readers uncomfortable, make them think and, most importantly, make them question.
It may also surprise some readers because, as Mr. Eco writes at the book’s beginning:
“The Prague Cemetery is a story in which all the characters except one—the main character—really existed . . . [and] I am expecting two kinds of readers. The first has no idea that all these things really happened . . . The second, however, knows or senses that I am recounting things that really happened . . . 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 among us . . .’”