The 1800s was possibly the most tumultuous century in history, full of revolutionary idealism and religious plotting. Fired by Romantic idealism and a love of the Gothic, secrets abounded and subterfuge was rife; this was the century which brought the world firmly into the modern era, via violent revolutions and rampant anti-Semitism, including the Dreyfus affair. Governments plotted against each other and their own people, creating unrest and promoting rebellion in order to achieve their own ends. Mistrust of anyone different was ubiquitous and rumours of dastardly plots by Jews and Masons were common. At the centre of it all, with a finger in every pie, is Simone Simonini, the main character and creator of The Prague Cemetery of the title. He reaps advantage from sowing discord and creating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports to describe a Jewish plan for world domination, casually disposing of anyone who threatens his work.
With a plot like this, what could go wrong? It has all the elements of a ripping yarn, written by a very well-regarded author and was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. However, I felt that Eco had over-reached himself on this occasion. The scope of the plot was far-reaching, spanning many decades and several countries. In trying to create a single story which could tie together disparate elements from European history, I felt that The Prague Cemetery lacked clarity and cohesion.
I found this a difficult book to read, and therefore to rate – which is reflected in the fact that I have deviated from my standard rating system to give it 3.5 stars. There is no doubt that Umberto Eco is a talented author and I have thoroughly enjoyed several of his previous works. However, The Prague Cemetery just didn’t do it for me. Perhaps it was the protagonist, who is one of the most unpleasant that I have come across, or it could be that my knowledge of this period of history is somewhat lacking (although I do now have a better understanding of France in the 1800s, due to reading Les Miserables). Whatever it was, I struggled to get through the book and couldn’t wait to finish it, which was a red flag since I am a voracious reader. My rating, therefore, reflects the struggle between my esteem for Eco as an author and my feelings about this specific book.
Verdict: Packed full of historical detail, The Prague Cemetery will appeal to a certain kind of reader. It just wasn’t for me.