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The Prague cemetery is the latest novel by Italian novelist Umberto Eco; in it he explores the attitudes and beliefs of 19th century French/Italian societies.
Umberto Eco is best known for the name of the rose, a murder mystery set in the 14th century which was turned into a film starring Sean Connery, it has been described as the best non-English novel of the last 30 years.
The Prague cemetery is one of those rare books which is hard to define, it is first person perspective throughout but the first person shifts as the narrator is suffering from some kind of mental angst and constantly worries over his memory and what happens when he sleeps. The main character Simone Simonini is the only main character which is fictional, all the rest are real historical characters and through Simone's eyes we meet such figures as Freud, Dumas, Garibaldi and others who I've never heard off but are real people. Simone's character is one of a secret policeman working for a shadowy government office, he is convinced that the uproar and state of chaos existing on France, Italy and other European countries at the time is the cause of Jewish influence, the book is rife with Simone's anti-Semitism. Throughout the novel there are numerous black and white drawings of the people Simone meets as he weaves a web of deceit and deception through the upper echelons of mainly French society.
The novel is strange in some ways as it begins in 1897 with Simone writing a diary after some kind of mental problem, and his memory of the past is hazy or selectively forgetful shall we say, he seems to remember everything he did which he thinks is laudable but anything less pleasant is caused by a shadowy alter-ego a priest called Abbe Dalla Piccola. Through Simone's undercover work and the machinations of a Catholic priest we have a story covering free masonry, devil worship, Jewish world domination, and subversive communists and anarchists.
I don't have a lot of prior knowledge over the problems facing France and Italy in the middle of the 19th century, I've heard of Garibaldi but mainly if I was truthful I'd think of the biscuit first and Dreyfuss and Napoleon III but the wars between France and Prussia I've only scant knowledge off and the pogroms meted out to the Jews only vague insights. So this novel at least gives a bit more details off what was happening on the continent whilst Britain was slowly creating a huge empire overseas, the conflicts and fights on the Continent are covered in detail but the British are for once in a novel of that period barely mentioned.
My favourite character though is one I'd never heard of before this novel, the master hoaxer of his day Leo Taxil, he wrote fake books trying to make it appear that the Jews where secretly influencing Western governments and persuaded journalists that there was a underwater city in Lake Geneva. In this novel, he is treated kindly at first by Simone but slowly becomes a hindrance before Simone has a hand in his downfall.
Overall, this is a complex novel; it moves between 1897 and backwards and has a main character with a split personality. It was at times a challenging read and some of the reading material is unpleasant at best, there are unsettling sections and the main character is one of the least pleasant characters I've encountered. However, it does compel and the author manages to weave an enjoyable and intriguing novel around a series of complex and strange encounters. The ending is suitably odd and gives plenty of food for thought.
After reading the novel, I was still a bit vague on what the Prague cemetery actually is I think it refers to the hoaxing of a meeting in Prague of senior European Jews but I suspect I might have missed something in one of the chapters explaining its context and certainly struggled to understand Simone's interest in it.