I have mentioned before how much I love Umberto Eco. The depth and quality of his writing is above and beyond anything I could ever aspire to as a writer, and as an historian, the historicity of his work is the best I’ve ever come across (excepting maybe Hillary Mantel).
The Prague Cemetery is no exception to this rule, skilfully tying every conceivable anti-semitic, anti-masonic, and often, anti-Jesuit plot, scheme, or crisis from the late 19th century into one overarching conspiracy. Almost every character in the novel actually existed, the only main exception being the “Protagonist”, though Anti-Hero is most definitely a more appropriate title here. Even the main character’s uncle and the source of all his hatred is historically verifiable.
As with all of Eco’s books, amid the history and mystery, there is also an exploration of more abstract concept, such as identity, memory and sanity, done here in a typically skilful way; the character appears to be being visited each night by someone with very-but-not-quite-exactly similar thought to himself, who takes the time to write in his diary before fleeing. This could have been executed a bit more smoothly, it mostly becomes obvious long before the reveal, though the specifics still come as a bit of a shock, but in general, it acts as a good device to tie the book together.
The main downfall for the book is that because the protagonist and POV character is such a despicable creation, it does affect the reading of it. I don’t think I ever felt sympathy for him, though I can’t necessarily be certain of this fact, and I suppose that this may have been part of Eco’s intention. However, reading all of the bile and hatred that passed for the characters thoughts and personality made me feel as unclean and physically repulsed as I did while read Lolita. This doesn’t reflect poorly on the book itself, and indeed, as I say, it was likely Eco’s intention. But still, it did affect my appreciation of the novel, making it the first of Eco’s books that I wouldn’t rate at 5/5. I wouldn’t avoid reading it, but I’d definitely read one of his others, particularly The Name of the Rose or Baudolino first.