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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

The Prague CemeteryThe Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Umberto Eco is back with a typically convoluted novel that showed his zest for minutely detailing odd corners of history.

Set in late 19th century Paris and Italy, it follows the exploits of a fictional counterfeiter of legal documents as he meets with the real (and really strange) figures of his era.

Simone Simonini is entirely without scruple and apolitical except for a deep undercurrent of antisemitism. He will forge documents for anyone but prefers to create conspiracy theories about the Jews. As you might suspect, he contributes to that notorious fake, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of Hitler's favorite reads and still a bestseller in many Muslim countries.

Eco is at his best when describing the bizarre beliefs of bygone ages, something he returns to again and again in his fiction. He's in top form here, with lots of information about the Freemasons, political radicals, and religious hucksters of the era. At times, however, it gets a bit long winded and reads as if it was lifted verbatim from century-old sources.

Another problem is the narrative conceit. Simonini has lost his memory, and carries on a correspondence with a clergyman who may or may not be his alter ego and who seems to know everything he doesn't. I saw no reason for this structure and it quickly becomes tiresome, as do the broad winks to the reader. His first two books, The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, were much better.

Still, it's a fun read and gives a detailed skewering of the Protocols and how they were cobbled together from earlier antisemitic screeds and novels. It gives this frivolous romp through history a relevant tone.

I give this book three and a half stars.

View all my reviews


  1. I'll let hubs know about this one, Sean. (I wondered why you mentioned the title in your comment on the Eiffel.) I notice a lot of that 'wink' to the reader type of writing.

    I'm reading the 'Parisians, An Adventure History of Paris' by Graham Robb. It's a collection of history events with fiction details added to simulate the reality. I'll review it in October.

    Interesting review, thanks.

  2. The Name of the Rose was pubbed in 1980, so it's taken the author 33 years to write 3 books. They should all be real dazzlers, no?

    The review was excellent even if the book wasn't.

    1. Actually he's written three other novels as well, but I haven't read them so I didn't mention them. He's done a ton of scholarly nonfiction and popular level essays as well. He's a professor of semiotics at an Italian university.


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