The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

January 26, 2013 at 16:13 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )




Throughout this novel, Eco writes with an impressively dualistic pen (which is not a reference to the dual nature of his protagonist), managing a gentle and likeable humour in the midst of a biting and sarcastic narrative. It often seems that Eco loves his grotesque Simonini as much as he despises him; and the result is a sympathy that the reader cannot but help being drawn into.

“And when I was old enough to understand, he reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a Gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmyk, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust…”

-The Prague Cemetery

The Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the story, introduced almost at the outset, at first seems like a bad idea–especially when the narrator adds his voice to the tumult, resulting in the sort of “believe me, gentle reader” voice that has been about done to death. Although the narrator’s intrusions remain a little unwieldy throughout the book, Eco’s protagonist (or protagonists) share their duties well, and the style is neither heavyhanded nor aggravating. A vanity, perhaps, but a useful one. Eco’s debt to Dumas is flaunted openly, but he is also skilled enough as a writer to address Dumas as a peer, and uses his predacessor as a gilded frame and not as a crutch. One of the gravest pitfalls of consciously emphasising another writer (in homage or in plagiarism) is to remind the reader how much they’d prefer to be reading that book rather than yours, and Eco avoids this trammel and remains convincing and lively throughout.

The subject matter is of the very coarsest: quite besides the outrageously racist and misogynistic protagonist, when the setting is the darkest slums and salons of nineteenth-century Paris and the cast includes corrupt priests and satanists, one might rightly expect some decidedly objectionable material. It is surprising then how discretely Eco treats his foulest and dirtiest plot elements, in a way that other authors ought to take careful note of. The pages of murders, whores, and assassinations are not visceral things dripping with clinically-described gore, and the casual sidestepping of the most indelicate acts is written neither lecherously nor prudishly. With exception to a few needlessly graphic pages near the end, this book might be a study in writing maturely and sensitively about the very nastiest of actions. Again, this might be a conscious emulation of Eco’s influencers.

It would be far too generous to say that this book is faultless, but it is a compelling thriller written by an author who is both competent and comfortable with his subject, and whose depiction of his antihero is subtle and clever.


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