Author: Umberto Eco
Publisher: Vintage Books
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The Prague Cemetery is Italian writer Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, translated into English by Richard Dixon. It revolves around the darkest (true) events and conspiracies of the 19th century and is considered to be a re-narration of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion.
About the Book
After a long time have I come across a book that is challenging to read. At first, when I read the summary (at the back), I thought this would be another Dan Brown, as it spoke of conspiracies, secret societies, black masses, Jesuits etc. 556 pages later, I stood corrected. This book is much more intense and compelling. For one, there is no ‘hero’ that solves or discovers conspiracies. Rather, in a strange turn of events our Protagonist is the one facilitating and giving birth to the evil plots. He is the anti-hero.
The concepts of secret cults, occult rituals, black magic and satanism have been explored by many mystery authors. But, Umberto Eco brings these ideas out of the fantasy/fictional frame and puts them into the stark reality of the 19th century. If God is a creation of man, so is the devil and the decision of who is good and who is bad depends on who pointed the finger at whom first. Our protagonist Simonini is a spy for various secret services and a forger of documents, who ‘manufactures’ secret documents (which are later conveniently discovered from a certain source) that reinforce or create a prejudice, leading to the persecution of a person or an entire sect. “People only believe what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy” says Simonini.
As Umberto writes in the book, “People want what is forbidden to them—and that’s that.” Thus, we start to dig into the roots of anti-semitism or hatred towards the Jews. Jews are connected to Freemasonry and Freemasonry is connected to the worshipers of Satan. And the most famous document appears when a gathering of Jews talk of the universal conspiracy of taking over the world. This document was also a part of Hitler’s argument in later years to claim Aryan superiority and justify the Holocaust.
The book explores the 19th Century when Europe was in turmoil with uprisings, revolutions, de-throning of monarchs and demands for equality. At such a time, communication was just beginning to develop with small pamphlets, periodicals and books. Even so, these publications played a great role in influencing public opinion and most states ‘created’ an enemy so that the people would forget about the autocratic regime and vent their anger at said enemy. The Jews were targeted by the militia, and the Freemasons were targeted by the Jesuits. Our protagonist revised old books and documents (which in most cases contained untrue accusations), into original documents that made anyone into a villain, as per the demands of his clients. But, his crimes were more heinous than that. Later, we discover that he was responsible directly and indirectly for various murders.
The Prague Cemetery is a twisted tale of manipulation and the consequent events that unfolded in the 19th century, with some events more disturbing than others. What is more chilling than the narration though is the note by the author at the end of the book, claiming that all the characters (except the protagonist, who is fictitious) and events in the book are true.
Umberto Eco’s historic fiction is in no way a simple read. It is heavy on your mind and you will have to read it slowly and carefully (sometimes re-reading certain pages). There are times when you get lost in the numerous details of names, places, and events in the book. But, as the author suggests at the end, a competent reader should enjoy the story as a whole, overlooking the complicated details. You are bound to be a bit lost in the first few chapters as our protagonist tries to recollect his lost memory and encounters his alter ego through the pages of his diary. But, be determined and read on. Slowly, things will fall into perspective and it will be worth the pain.
A few words of caution
There are a few things that you need to consider before you pick this one up. First, if history bores you, this book is not for you. Second, as Indians, our knowledge of European history is limited and thus it is advisable to read up about certain events like the French revolution, the Unification of Italy and the Paris commune. Third, if you are new to reading as a hobby, I’d suggest you give yourself some more time before you pick this up. (Read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown first.) And lastly, this is not a page-turning thriller. It will be a slow read, so if you are a person who lives to read and loves history mixed with some secrets and conspiracies, go ahead!