In general I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco, and as such I was eagerly awaiting the release of the English translation of The Prague Cemetery. I am sad to say that all of those elements that I love about Eco’s writing-the intelligent plotting, the dense prose, the belief in his reader’s ability to follow where he leads-have been carried to excess with this one.
The story is narrated by three voices, two of which are one person with a split personality, and the third is an unreliable voice of no discernible provenance. I must give a warning here about the main character. Eco has stated that he attempted to create the most despicable of all literary characters. The book begins with a rant that, had I not agreed to review the novel, would have had me tossing this one aside. If you are Jewish, German, French, Italian, or female and are sensitive to vitriol, the opening pages might offend you greatly. In point of fact I must admit that as the pages roll on the reader can see that stereotypes of prejudices are being played upon, and the reader begins to perceive the shape of a truly reprehensible character and ceases for the most part to be offended personally. The one thing which continued to cause me a fair measure of unease as I read is the virulent anti-semitism. I know that distrust and dislike of the Jewish people has been rampant throughout European history, and I realize that the plot of this novel centers around events purportedly reactionary to those anti-semitic feelings. However, the hatred is so much at the forefront of this book, that it almost made me the reader feel complicit by continuing to read. The foreknowledge that that is the author’s intent does not make me feel any less uncomfortable.
The device of a split personality is interesting, and works with the conspiracy theory nature of the plot. As for the plot, the reader is told up front that the book is created from real historical figures (only the main character and a few very minor ones are not drawn from actual people), and the plot structure is based on factual events with many conspiracy theories interwoven. The time frame in question is the later half of the nineteenth century, the setting is Italy, and the characters include Garibaldi and his Redshirts. Conspiracy theory is a fascination of mine, and I trusted Eco to write it well. This is the point where I must admit that I only made it to page 153 of 467. I went to the library last night and browsed through the Italian history books related to this era, hoping to demystify the plot somewhat by familiarizing myself with the players and events. Then I curled up again with the book, hoping my further education would make the book more accessible. After a couple of hours I put the book down and came to a decision-I must read a complete nonfiction work about the time, place, and people in question in order to fully understand and enjoy the conspiracy theories which Eco weaves through them. Too much is assumed by the author with regards to this reader’s knowledge of Italian history. I wonder perhaps, given that Eco writes in Italian for Italians, if this knowledge is basic to their curriculum, and it only becomes an issue in translation for foreigners.
At the moment I have given the book three stars, for I simply can not give a master of the pen like Eco any less. My plan is to read, in the next few months, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870 by Edgar Holt, a readable, concise work covering the events of Eco’s book, and then re-read this book by Eco. If you do not mind feeling a little lost in your history/conspiracy theories, or if you know a sufficient amount of the time and place in question, and if you love deep, dark novels, this will likely be your kind of read. Otherwise, I would approach this one with caution and preparation.