Book Review: ‘The Prague Cemetery’ – Umberto Eco

The Prague CemeteryThe Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: Game of Thrones GIFs seemed like the right choice here. I’ve read the series but not seen the show.

I hate conspiracy theories. The whole notion that there’s a few dudes in a room planning everyyyything—as if the world goes according to plan like that!

So it’s a good thing Eco is actually writing a history with a one-man conspiracy machine layered on top.

I was laughing out loud within about page five of this book—he picks the most utterly ridiculous stereotypes about different countries, and I actually remember learning about the German association with defecation in European history (it went something like Italian humor’s in the kitchen, German in the bathroom, and French in the bedroom).

Anyway, the narrators of the book are an abbé, an Italian captain, and then a third party interpreting the diary entries of the first two men (seemingly at a later, though not present, I think) date. Eco makes use of these different narrators to present the narrative slightly out of order—I didn’t find it confusing enough to need the timeline at the end, but that’s provided if you want to check information—and also to introduce an element of unreliability. (The ‘unreliable narrator,’ if you’ve heard that term.)


The book itself recounts the rise and influence of anti-Semitism in France (with some overflow into Germany, Russia, etc) during the latter half of the 19th century. What makes it a stand-out read, almost reminisicent of Baudolino (both in terms of flippancy and even plot) is that the primary perspectives are themselves very anti-Semitic.

Well, really the Captain is more anti-anyone that walks and talks, but his energies focus on the Jews early on.

According to the end of the book, the other characters are real people who haven’t been reported as doing anything they didn’t actually do, so this is real history, with embellishments, and approached from a perspective that historians can’t normally take because, you know, being a racist jerk is kind of a bad thing.

But it makes for a fun read, especially when navigating between the gaps in memory that are the in-book impetus for the whole sequence of events to be recorded at all. And, of course, it’s Eco so there is a lot of subtle snark throughout the whole thing. He makes fools of the narrator, the events, and the participants in the history…have I left anyone out?

Here’s a great example of it.
[

…you could have described him (judging from the illustrations of the time) as a Jewish prophet. In effect, there was something messianic about his anti-Judaism, as if the Almighty had given him the specific task of destroying the chosen people. Simonini was fascinated by the virulence of Drumont’s anti-Semitism. He hated the Jews, you might say, with love, with single-mindedness, with devotion—and with a fervor that sublimated all sexual desire. Drumont’s anti-Semitism wasn’t philosophical and political like Toussenel’s, nor theological like Gougenot’s. He was an erotic anti-Semite.

Now read the book!


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