Pros: fascinating look at a period of history largely ignored by modern readers, thought provoking
Cons: lots of politically incorrect and thereby uncomfortable speeches, vivid depiction of a black mass, unlikable protagonist
Simone Simonini's personal motto is, Odi ergo sum. I hate, therefore I am. An Italian living in Paris, Simonini hates: the Germans, the French, the Italians, women, Jesuits, and most importantly, the Jews. Which is why, after years of forging documents and fermenting chaos for various government agencies, he has created his masterpiece - a document that will turn the nations of the world against the Jews.
The novel begins with Simonini having lost his memory. He starts a diary in order to remember who he is, starting with his youth. Abbe Dalla Piccola, living in an adjoining apartment, has also lost his memory, but seems to know what happened during segments of Simonini's past, adding his own notes to Simonini's writings. Are they the same person? Or did Simonini merely confess these actions to the abbot?
Simonini is not a likable protagonist, and the book is an uncomfortable read, both due to Simonini's extremely vitriolic hate speeches (against many groups but there's more anti-semitic sentiment than others) as well as for a detailed description of a black mass (modified Latin and all). The second chapter of the book serves as a litmus test for the rest, shocking the reader and daring you to read on. If you can get past chapter 2 you'll have read the worst - though not the only - hate speeches in the book.
The book takes place during the late 1800s, when racist sentiments were the norm. Based on real people and events, it's a difficult, yet fascinating world to be thrown into. Along the way you encounter Alexander Dumas, Sigmund Freud (spelled Froide in the book), the Satanic cultist Abbot Boullan and more. From the Second Italian War of Independence to the Paris Commune of 1871, you'll be exposed to the bitter realities of the times. A reader would do well to have quick access to wikipedia in order to learn more about some of the strange - and accurate - things mentioned.
The Prague Cemetery is more accessible to the average reader than some of Eco's other novels which, given the sarcasm inherent in his forward and afterward is likely due to pressure from his publisher. Most of the foreign language segments have been translated into English, and he's helpfully provided a timeline at the back of the book for those who couldn't follow the narrative. A dramatis personae list would have been more helpful, as characters pass in and out of the work so frequently it's hard to remember who they are when they return.
In his forward Eco makes it clear that having his meticulously researched work of fiction compared to a popular (and more fanciful) work like The Da Vinci Code is something of an insult, despite how entertaining the latter book may be. He assumes there are two types of readers - The Da Vinci Code thrill seeker who will take all the events depicted in The Prague Cemetery as entertaining fiction, and the more intelligent reader who is interested in history and recognizes the real events and characters depicted and who see the horror inherent in the underlying message that real people did these things.
It seems that Eco is commenting on how far we as humans have come in the past two hundred years, by reminding us of where we've been. If so, it's also a warning of how easy it is to fall prey to visionaries, revolutionaries and fraudsters. And how readily others are willing to exploit us. Caveat lector: Let the reader, beware.
This latest 'picturesque' novel by Umberto Eco - stories that portray rogue characters - is not all that it appears to be. The time and setting is Europe in the later part of the 19th century, in the grip of a fresh wave of revolutionary fervour that is threatening to shake the very foundations of traditional authority, whether it be the Holy See, Napoleon's Second Empire, jingoistic Prussia, or the fledgling Italian states on the verge of unification. Eco introduces us to a protagonist named Captain Simonini who delights in being the bugbear or anti-hero who sows dissent, plots destruction, and spreads lies, all under the artful control of the author himself as narrator or puppeteer. Like the Anti-Christ of end times, this man is the evil architect of all that modern society is prepared to do to preserve power: gossip, murder, libel, slander, rape, theft, deceit, prejudice, heresy, blasphemy and fantasy. As the incarnation of all that evil in society, Simonini manages to work under the radar to destroy life in order to preserve it. Following Simonini around on his evil errands, we quickly realize that his calling in life, as an agent-provocateur for hire by the Vatican and other states, has been to create chaos across the continent in the name of ecumenical authority. Historically, this is the period of last hurrah for the church as the modern state is about to become a reality. While everyone is at each other's throats in the defence of their territory, the sanctimonious Church can artfully and unassumingly work behind the scenes, manipulating this political farce to its ultimate advantage. Irony abounds in this novel. We see Simonini, like a Grand Inquisitor, doing all in his power to defend the truth by perverting it. His demonic hatred is targeted mainly at Jews but he also finds time to go after other groups like Masons, Garabaldians, and free-thinkers to vilify in a campaign of widening the net to catch enemies of the state. To that end he has no problem concocting any story to make his point. His mission has become a campaign to use any method at his disposal to run these people off the face of the earth: mockery, intrigue, stealth, conspiracy, and dishonesty. There are two elements of Simonini's pathological personality that Eco controls very well throughout the novel: his delusional sense of grandeur or overweening pride and his chilling paranoia that sees enemies where none exist. The drawings that accompany this story depict a malevolent group of conspirators fighting an imaginary conspiracy all in the name of righteousness. Go figure! Such are the riddles of life when people get so wrapped up in their own importance that they create qualities in others that they choose to ignore in themselves. As usual, Eco does a brilliant job in making great sport of that human failing.
AS you climb a mountain wherever you are on a mountain effects the way you see the world around you. The vantage point from which the author seeks to look are the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century and the forming of nations, and the soldier of fortunes who formed these nations and the other elements and they are largely religios forces social forces..and the novel which many people find difficult are a surfeit of ideas. In all these areas there are a group of people from divergent nations, filled with various loyalties, and we have a dr F..and rather than from today's standpoint he adopts a standpoint of melancholy..as a way to look back on these ancient tales.."its not that I need the money..I'm bored"(p 427)..and then there's the tale of a girl at the end..that too is melancholy...its almost unbearable to read...and if the novel was written 15 years ago it would have been written in a different way..its the problems of today..the psychology of and problems of modern life..which allow us a peep into the past and understand..the good the bad and the ugly..of yesterday...anyways thats what I got out of the novel. Not soap operish or sentimental at all..thats why people will have trouble getting into the novel..but as in most of the author's works, they are compelling, there is much to learn to accept or reject the omniscient narrator as he goes into the minds of his characters..all too real to be absurd...and the image of climbing up the mountain like Moses..the people below wondered he would come down from the mountain..or whether he wanted to but there are also positive characters among the unsavoury...and it adds some depth to modern discussions about life..many will take a different view..we can all view past however we want..but the characters we weave tales on as in this memorable novel..is the world and worlds of today..and the problems all people face today...which are the people of the past the writer harks back to
"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you." -- John 15:18 (NKJV)
At first, I thought I must be reading a book written by a reincarnated Voltaire who had majored in 19th century European history. As someone who did major in 19th century European history in college, I was fascinated to see how many real historical threads masterful novelist Umberto Eco tied together to one fictional character. In his cupidity, antihero Simone Simonini is a perfect reflection of the world he describes in terms of cynically fanning the flames of hate to advance some momentary interest or another. The opening pages are simply stunning in terms of their self-indictment of how little prejudice is usually based on.
From there, I'm sure you'll enjoy reading how many forged documents and "informational" campaigns were based on obscure novels that had been forgotten by many people. I almost fell out of my chair laughing in places while being reminded how many such deceptions were taken from the very same sources.
This book is so rich in history, perspective, and psychology that it could easily become the subject for a doctoral dissertation. I don't remember another modern novel with nearly this much intellectual content . . . put together in such an entertaining way. I agree that it's destined to be considered a masterpiece.
I hope that many young readers will have opportunities to read and to discuss its content in class. Such an investigation will help inoculate them against much of the cynical posturing that today's politicians and opinion makers engage in . . . for their own benefit and for the harm of most everyone else. In that sense, the book will seem at some levels as if it were also describing the 21st century.