Translated from Italian by Richard Dixon
Pros: fascinating look at a period of history largely ignored by modern readers, thought provoking
Cons: lots of politically incorrect and thereby uncomfortable speeches, vivid depiction of a black mass, unlikable protagonist
Simone Simonini's personal motto is, Odi ergo sum. I hate, therefore I am. An Italian living in Paris, Simonini hates: the Germans, the French, the Italians, women, Jesuits, and most importantly, the Jews. Which is why, after years of forging documents and fermenting chaos for various government agencies, he has created his masterpiece - a document that will turn the nations of the world against the Jews.
The novel begins with Simonini having lost his memory. He starts a diary in order to remember who he is, starting with his youth. Abbe Dalla Piccola, living in an adjoining apartment, has also lost his memory, but seems to know what happened during segments of Simonini's past, adding his own notes to Simonini's writings. Are they the same person? Or did Simonini merely confess these actions to the abbot?
Simonini is not a likable protagonist, and the book is an uncomfortable read, both due to Simonini's extremely vitriolic hate speeches (against many groups but there's more anti-semitic sentiment than others) as well as for a detailed description of a black mass (modified Latin and all). The second chapter of the book serves as a litmus test for the rest, shocking the reader and daring you to read on. If you can get past chapter 2 you'll have read the worst - though not the only - hate speeches in the book.
The book takes place during the late 1800s, when racist sentiments were the norm. Based on real people and events, it's a difficult, yet fascinating world to be thrown into. Along the way you encounter Alexander Dumas, Sigmund Freud (spelled Froide in the book), the Satanic cultist Abbot Boullan and more. From the Second Italian War of Independence to the Paris Commune of 1871, you'll be exposed to the bitter realities of the times. A reader would do well to have quick access to wikipedia in order to learn more about some of the strange - and accurate - things mentioned.
The Prague Cemetery is more accessible to the average reader than some of Eco's other novels which, given the sarcasm inherent in his forward and afterward is likely due to pressure from his publisher. Most of the foreign language segments have been translated into English, and he's helpfully provided a timeline at the back of the book for those who couldn't follow the narrative. A dramatis personae list would have been more helpful, as characters pass in and out of the work so frequently it's hard to remember who they are when they return.
In his forward Eco makes it clear that having his meticulously researched work of fiction compared to a popular (and more fanciful) work like The Da Vinci Code is something of an insult, despite how entertaining the latter book may be. He assumes there are two types of readers - The Da Vinci Code thrill seeker who will take all the events depicted in The Prague Cemetery as entertaining fiction, and the more intelligent reader who is interested in history and recognizes the real events and characters depicted and who see the horror inherent in the underlying message that real people did these things.
It seems that Eco is commenting on how far we as humans have come in the past two hundred years, by reminding us of where we've been. If so, it's also a warning of how easy it is to fall prey to visionaries, revolutionaries and fraudsters. And how readily others are willing to exploit us. Caveat lector: Let the reader, beware.