The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2012 – IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2013

Where do you start when attempting a review of a novel by a leading member of the semiotics family, a writer of well-studied academic texts and a person who weaves history and medieval studies into his works?
You probably don’t start anywhere as anything you’d write would pale in insignificance against his master hand. Umberto Eco’s latest novel is no different from the ones that came before, you actually feel dumb when reading it as how could a single human mind know so much?
“The Prague Cemetery” is set in Nineteenth Century Europe and is introduced by someone who refers to one of the upcoming characters as the narrator, we have comments on what the reader should be doing, one (or is it two?) people writing the diary we are reading and slowly revealing the rise of anti-Semitism, all through conspiracies and forgeries across various countries and major historical events.
Let us imagine conspirators who come from every part of the world and represent the tentacles of their sect spread throughout every country. Let us assemble them together in a forest clearing, a cave, a castle, a cemetery or a crypt, provided it is reasonably dark. Let us get one of them to pronounce a discourse which clearly sets out the plan, and the intention to conquer the world….I have known many people who feared the conspiracy of some hidden enemy – for my grandfather it was the Jews, for the Jesuits it was the Masons, for my Garibaldian father it was the Jesuits, for the kings of half of Europe it was the Carbonari, for my Mazzinian, companions it was the king backed by the clergy, for the police throughout half the world it was the Bavarian Illuminati, and so forth. Who knows how many other people in this world still think they are being threatened by some conspiracy.
Did anybody understand that? Whilst confusing and challenging, the writing is superb, and there are great passages where you become lost in the structure:
Through his years in Turin, his experience in Sicily and his first years in the most disreputable backstreets of Paris, he had gained sufficient experience to recognise the born criminal. He did not share the views which had begun to circulate at the time that all criminals were supposed to be runtish, or hunchbacked, or hare-lipped or scrofulous or, as the celebrated Vidocq had suggested (and Vidocq knew a thing or two about criminals, not least because he was one himself), were all bow-legged. But they certainly presented many characteristics typical of the coloured races, such as lack of body hair, small cranial capacity, receding forehead, well developed chest, highly pronounced protruding jaw and cheekbones, squint-eyes, swarthy complexion, thick curly hair, large ears, uneven teeth, as well as emotional indifference, exaggerated passion for carnal pleasures and for wine, lack of sensitivity to pain, laziness, impulsiveness, improvidence, great vanity, passion for gambling and superstition.
There are great engraved artworks scattered throughout making it a pleasurable book to hold, feel and experience, but all up I made it 214 pages in (from a possible 437) when I realised that my reading had slowed and although enjoying the style and the plot, it was also becoming too much hard work. So back to the bookshelf it went.
So there you have it, a miniature review (if one at all) and novel number 2 for the year that I didn’t complete. I’m now going to tackle the 2012 Man Booker Prize long list – leaving the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to languish for another couple of months.
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