Book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco made an interesting comment about this novel during an interview. He was speaking about the narrowness of love: if I love you, I want you to love me, and I don’t want anyone else to love you and I want you to feel the same way about me. But hate is generous. It’s a simple idea but he’s right. Haters love to hate and spread it around liberally. Haters hate whole generations, nations, and ethnicities equally; their hatred doesn’t discriminate. The narrator of The Prague Cemetery is a hater for the ages. He’s Italian by birth but considers himself French; he has a bit of Hannibal Lecter in him – he is hyper-intelligent, well-educated and loves fine food but hates everyone, especially the Jews.

Eco uses post-modernist historiometafiction techniques to weave together claimed historical “facts” with his fiction. Various political parties are scheming to unite Italy, and our protagonist Simonini, lends a hand to his fellow haters. He is a notary and a skilled hand at forgery and through the falsification of documents, he is able to further the cause.  Many real-life characters make an appearance, French novelist and author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, and in one scene, Simonini has an awkward encounter in a restaurant with Freud (spelled Fröid) where they discuss the wonders of cocaine.

There is humor between the pages if you look for it. Readers are placed at the center of the inner monologue of our protagonists and narrator and his matter-of-fact comments about Jews, although horrifying, is so simple minded, it makes one laugh at his stupidity. Eco is a master storyteller and no doubt his people, places, and events are accurate but what really brought the work to life for me was the audiobook.

But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion…Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal…You don’t love someone for your whole life — that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.

During the year I have acquired the habit of reading and listening to the book at the same time. Some people find this strange, and I don’t know why. If I were to just listen to the book, what would I do with my eyes? Stare into space? If I did something else, performed some mindless task like cleaning the kitchen, I would become distracted and lose the thread. Listening to a trained voice actor perform a dramatic reading can breathe life into the work. The actor narrating this novel is Sean Barrett and I wish I could aware him an Oscar. He brings another dimension to Simonini as a character and makes the whole effort of reading more enjoyable. These pro narrators don’t simply read the novel, for that you can visit Librivox recordings and listen to volunteers narrate public domain works; voices like those belonging to Sean Barret perform a dramatic reading, and not just anyone has that level of skill.

The formal register of the dialogue in The Prague Cemetery matches perfectly with the time period and the diction keeps the descriptive prose at the center without going overboard with superfluous exposition. Umberto Eco was one of the masters and I am grateful to the reader who left this novel behind in a hotel in Tetuan, Morroco where I was able to “borrow” it permanently.

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