The Prague Cemetery

The Prague Cemetery

A tale of intrigue and conspiracy, Umberto Eco’s latest novel The Prague Cemetery brings to life nineteenth-century Europe with all the gusto that will always make historical fiction my favourite genre. The main character, Simonini, a forger of official documents, grows up indoctrinated to hate the Jews, but has somehow forgotten major parts of his life; meanwhile, Abbé Dalla Piccola is encountering a similar experience. But the two characters appear to be inextricably linked, and only by following the diaries of the pair as they impact major conspiracies in Europe can we also discover just what it is that is binding the two together.


A glance at the first page and you may be immediately put off – the first sentence spans around three-quarters of the page. But The Prague Cemetery is one to persevere with. Eco’s writing style may not be the easiest to follow, but he certainly rewards with rich description and characterisation. Simonini’s character in particular is developed throughout the novel and, although not a character to admire because of his ruthless, back-stabbing nature, his diary draws you on as though he is not only able to influence public opinion about the Jewish religion, but also to entrance the reader, too.


The one issue that I have with this novel is the sheer volume of historical detail that is included. Although some is necessary to follow the plot line, the details that Eco describes make some sections rather dense, and the effect is to make the novel a bit of a slow burner. Intrigued from the start, I was expecting the climax of The Prague Cemetery to appear about a hundred pages earlier than it did; instead I had to wait until the last fifty or so pages before the novel truly ignited.


What makes The Prague Cemetery a novel worth reading, however, is the simple afterword that Eco writes, and that I wish he had put as a foreword instead – that all of the characters and how anti-Semitism was triggered in Europe is solid fact, barring the character of Simonini. Whilst reading the novel without that knowledge, I was a little detached and uncaring; now, knowing that the characters depicted and the culmination of the novel almost certainly influenced Hitler’s anti-Semitism makes the ending all the more chilling and poignant. A challenging novel – but definitely worth the read.

by Julia Molloy

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