First of all, a big happy new year to everyone and I hope the season has treated you well. My apologies for such a long gap; I’ve been very preoccupied with Christmas preparations and then I got sidetracked playing far too much Skyrim and working on Pirates of Time, which is a constant source of drama for me as I continue to write it. But never fear, I’m back now and with a new review to kick off the new year!
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco is a book that certainly lives up to the author’s reputation for writing complex, engaging, and highly imaginative stories. In this work he blends history with fiction to create a world conspiracy theory, believed by the protagonist’s grandfather: that there exists a group of high Zionist priests who seek to control civilisation. Our protagonist, Captain Simonini, is tasked with carrying out his grandfather’s wishes and is plunged head-first into a world of double-crossing, forgery, black masses, masonry, and international spying to complete them. In doing so, he succumbs to split personality disorder, and for many in-novel years believes he is also Abbe Dalla Piccola, a man he killed but then replaced to serve as a means to gain more information on the Christian clergy.
Unfortunately for the Abbe, he seems to get lumped with all the jobs that Simonini doesn’t have the guts to do. By the end of the book, he ends up heavily traumatised by an event occurring at a black mass ceremony he attends on the advice of a colleague. Simonini promptly disposes of his second personality as soon as he hands the completed Prague Cemetery over to the Russians and realises what’s going on, and hopes that the Abbe’s connections will stop looking for him. He’s wrong on that count, and the novel ends with Simonini once again plunged into the world of deceit by initiating a train line bombing in the late 1800s.
After having read Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as my introduction to his works, I am struck by the many similarities between it and The Prague Cemetery. Both of these centre on conspiracy theories, and both share the haphazard and confusing plot structure of a diary recounted by a narrator, or a narrator exploring real-time events. Also, both of them include rituals of the occult and explore the possibilities and stories around them. What else I find interesting about Eco’s works is that he uses pre-existing historical artefacts, events, and people to reconstruct history from a different perspective, which only veers a little from the original. He asks the ‘what ifs’, and tries to answer them in the most intelligible way that he can, and I admire that in a writer. It shows bravery and skill as a literary craftsman.
A few criticisms, though. As an advanced reader, I found this book challenging. Probably because I was reading at one in the morning, and that can’t have helped my brain. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem – I like something I can chew on – but this time it is. In the endpaper material for helping to explain the book, Eco comes across as self-satisfied and smug. I mean, it’s all well and good that a timeline was provided to help make sense of things, but it’s no use providing that for the benefit of the reader and then proceeding to mock them for needing it because they aren’t high-brow enough to understand it on the first shot. A book of this magnitude can’t have been easy to write – heck, I struggle with a straightforward plotline – and it’s good that he admits that he had trouble with it. But even so, he put the timeline there to help the reader. Did it really need all the guff beforehand?
Second, although I suspect that this was meant to be a satirical or exploratory novel on some levels – it references the founding ideas for Hitler’s Aryan master race and the Holocaust, and a founding part of the plot is that Jews are ‘bad people’ -, I feel it could be considered a novel written in poor taste by some. In this day and age, people don’t want to be reminded of that horrible time in history and if a satirical/exploratory novel is to be written about the subject, then it should be made blatantly clear. Of course this is my personal opinion and that doesn’t mean it carries much weight, but it should serve as a reminder for writers to remember the context of their subject of choice, and to treat it with the appropriate levels of respect and tact.
I’m not sure if I’d read this book again. Although it was written well and the ideas were usually cohesive, I found that Eco tends to cram a whole bunch of ideas into one novel and then tries to string them together. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps it was the diary layout, perhaps it was the multiple personalities. I’ll have to think on it for a while and see where it takes me. It’s also worth noting that for all my criticisms, it’s an engaging piece and it urges you to figure out the puzzle before Simonini does, which is something that good books should do.
To you, readers, I’d issue a word of caution before embarking on any of Eco’s works. If you do read it or have happened to do so in the past, or have read some of Eco’s other works, drop me a line in the comments. Tell me what you think.
I’m not sure what I’ll be reviewing next (there’s a lot in my queue), but next on my reading list will be Kevin J. Anderson’s The Edge of the World, to fit in with my escapades in Pirates of Time. I do hope you’ve all been keeping well over the holiday season, and a big hello to all my new followers since my last blog entry.
Never stop reading!