three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
Umberto Eco
user_rating: 
0

A-PragueCemetaryItalian novelist Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics, philosophy, and medieval studies at the University of Bologna. Eco's internationally best-selling postmodern novels--six in all--include The Name of the Rose (1983) and Foucault's Pendulum (1989). Reviewed: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2005).

The Story: "Paris isn't what it used to be," grumbles Simone Simonini, "ever since that pencil sharpener, the Eiffel Tower, has been sticking up in the distance, visible from every angle." It is 1897, and, after a long career as a master forger, rabidly bigoted 67-year-old Simonini, whose personal motto is "I hate therefore I am," relives his glory days as the secret protagonist behind some of 19th-century Europe's most sensational and appalling scandals, including the Dreyfus affair and the Taxil hoax. But his life's work--his crowning achievement--is the creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1905), an incendiary text that allegedly reveals a Jewish plot to take over the world.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade. 464 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780547577531

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars"No less than in The Name of the Rose, his debut novel of 30 years ago, Eco here is a master storyteller who wears his learning lightly. He creates a 19th-century European world as vivid, absorbing and entertaining as his conspiratorial tale of disinformation." Tom Feran

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars"Simonini's as disgraceful as they come, and those who feel the need to bond with a narrator will be instantly put off by this novel. ... . [But the novel is] meant to remind us of the dangers of complacency and credulousness. It's meant to be unsettling. And by that measure, it's a huge success." Kevin Canfield

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars"Imaginatively recreating the dubious origins of The Protocols, Eco simultaneously gives us a history of the 19th-century European milieu that led millions of people to swallow it whole. ... The Prague Cemetery is best when developing this [anti-Semitic] thread, culminating in a masterful account of the Dreyfus case, in which forged documents were used to convict an innocent French Army officer of espionage because he was Jewish." Mike Fischer

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars"Mr. Eco puts readers unfamiliar with the unification of Italy, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion at a distinct disadvantage. ... As an anatomy of anti-Semitism, however, The Prague Cemetery works remarkably well." Glenn C. Altschuler

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars"Despite its challenges and its rather contemptible protagonist, The Prague Cemetery is edifying and thoroughly worthwhile. That it is historically accurate makes it all the more chilling." Carmela Ciuraru

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars"The Prague Cemetery is certainly engrossing and cautionary, but it mainly offers, to adopt Joseph Conrad's biblical-sounding phrase, the appalling fascination of the abomination. Be aware, then, that Umberto Eco hasn't produced anything close to what one might call a fun read or a light entertainment. The Prague Cemetery is, in fact, an all-out horror story." Michael Dirda

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars"A reader unaware of the underpinning in hard historical facts might begin to languish beneath the tedium of the scheming and ranting, though Eco has tried to relieve the monotony by superimposing a plot concerning his protagonist. ... And even if the best parts of The Prague Cemetery are those he did not invent, Eco is to be applauded for bringing this stranger-than-fiction truth vividly to life." Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Critical Summary

In his sixth novel, Eco skewers some of the most pernicious hoaxes in history, cleverly weaving together the 19th century's conspiracies and scams and exploring the roots of modern-day anti-Semitism. Readers may need to brush up on their history: although the events Eco describes may seem over-the-top, they are ripped right from the era's headlines, and readers unfamiliar with them will find themselves at a loss. Simonini--"compelling in his repugnance," according to USA Today--might well be the most hateful character in all fiction, and The Prague Cemetery does not make for light reading. It is, however, powerful, provocative, and gripping--"a shrewd exploration of history that reads like a thriller" (Cleveland Plain Dealer). From Umberto Eco, we would expect nothing less.