The Prague Cemetery

Written by Umberto Eco
Review by Doug Kemp

Renowned primarily for his novel The Name of the Rose, the reader approaches a new Eco work of fiction wondering what sort of intellectual rollercoaster ride is in prospect. And this does not disappoint insofar that the book is crammed full of arcane events and historical lore and conspiracies. But whether the outcome is a work of art or a hodgepodge/torrent of narrative is open to question.

The story is unfolded through the diaries of Simone Simonini, a master forger, spy and murderer. He has an alter ego in the form of a priest complicating the story, as Simonini claims that he does not know about his dual personality. The story ranges from Garibaldi’s freedom fighters in Sicily, through to the Paris Commune and the Dreyfus affair. Simonini is at the centre of the events, and the thread running through all of this is the rise of anti-Semitism in mainland Europe together with the growth of Freemasonry. The title of the book refers to the location of a secret meeting of leading rabbis held every 100 years in which they plot the rise to dominance of the Jewish people. This, of course is an invention by Simonini taken from a story his grandfather told him, and which eventually evolves into the notorious fake document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There is some black magic, and the thesis of anti-Semitism as described by Eco is repellent and rather uncomfortable to read.

I cannot recall reading a book over which so many times I dozed off! It is not an easy book, and while it challenges and provokes, it is also often monotonous; a shame, given Eco’s previous fictional excellence.