I just finished reading The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, leant to me by everwalker‘s faithful raptor. It’s the story of Simonini, a nineteenth century forger, told largely through diary entries as he pieces together his broken memories. It examines some of the darker aspects of Europe at that time – crime and inequality, the emergence of professional espionage and the rising tide of anti-semitism. As with much of Eco’s work, it’s also concerned with the uncertain nature of human experience, the subjective and unreliable way we bear witness to our world. There was a lot to enjoy here, but there was some stuff I found disappointing too.
First the good bits. Eco is a very clever writer. He pulls together the threads of history in a seemless and convincing fashion. You don’t need to know anything about the real history to understand what’s going on, but if you do then those details become more convincing. He does what Dan Brown fails to do, deftly tying together story and reality, making the incredible convincing.
Simonini is a fascinating idea for a character. Lurking in the background of great events, he develops from fraudster to conspirator to spy, raising questions about the boundaries between these activities. This is a character designed to make a point, but one who has depths and darkness beyond the nature of his career.
But these strengths are tied to the book’s weaknesses. Eco’s writing is clever at the expense of passion, and I never felt much emotional engagement. Simonini was so busy weaving his way through history that he seemed to lack his own sense of drive and purpose, and I didn’t feel for him. Whether things went well or badly, I remained largely indifferent.
Trying to break this down as a writer, I think it may come from an obsession with details that doesn’t translate into bringing them to life. For example, Simonini loves his food. He often records what he goes to eat. It’s an interesting character quirk that should make this immoral man more likeable. But these passages just turn into lists of dishes and ingredients, not descriptions of the food, how it tasted, how it made him feel. And maybe that too is meant to show us something about the character, but I soon started skimming those parts. Simonini didn’t really seem to care, and so neither did I.
I love that the world contains such a clever writer as Umberto Eco, but in this case I found his writing too dispassionate. He’s tried to do something really admirable, but it didn’t work for me. If the good things I’ve mentioned appeal to you then I’d recommend reading Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose first. And then, if you still want more Eco, try The Prague Cemetery. Maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.