Thursday, December 8, 2011

"I hate therefore I am"

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco

The quote above tells you almost everything you need to know about the protagonist of Umberto Eco's latest novel. Set in 19th century Europe, Captain Simonini is an equal opportunity misanthrope, and early in the novel there's a lengthy diatribe against not only the Jews (always very much at the center of Simonini's hatred), but also the Germans, French, Italians, priests, Jesuits, Masons, women, and several other groups in asides. Simonini expounds, "They say that a soul is simply what a person does. But if I hate someone, and I cultivate this grudge, then, by God, that means there is something inside! What does the philosopher say? Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am."

I think it took me about three attempts to make it past these over-the-top opening salvos of hatred, and a smarter reader would have quit, but Eco has defeated me in the past, and I was determined to read this entire book. Why? Why? The Prague Cemetery is a dense, complex, convoluted tour through 19th century European history. (I strongly recommend that you acquire a Ph.D. in the subject before you sit down to read.) Simonini, it seems, is--Forrest Gump-like--at the center of almost all major events, and pretty much behind every conspiracy of the era.

As you may have gathered above, he is not a good guy. At one point he justifies: "Yes, I admit it. In my conduct toward my would-be Carbonari comrades, and to Rebaudengo, I did not act in accordance with the morals you are supposed to preach. But let us be frank: Rebaudengo was a rogue, and when I think of all I have done since then, I seem to have practiced all of my roguery on rogues." Yeah, right.

The novel is an autobiography of sorts, as there is some confusion as to Simonini's identity. He seems to be possibly inhabiting the same apartment? body? mind? as a clergyman named Abbé Dalla Piccola. Simonini's memory is full of holes, which Dalla Piccola seems to be able to fill, as he inserts his own recollections into Simonini's written document. Does this sound confusing? You have no idea. "Abbé Dalla Piccola seems to reawaken only when Simonini needs a voice of conscious to accuse him of becoming distracted and to bring him back to reality, otherwise he appears somewhat forgetful. To be frank, if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between amnesiac euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator."

On the subject of "events that actually took place," pretty much all of the history (if not the stories behind the events) took place, and in fact, according to Eco, Simonini is the only fictional character in the entire novel. So, those European history Ph.D.s are really going to have a field day. For the rest of us, not so much fun, I have to say.

If it's not yet clear, I hated this book. I violently HATED this book! Reading it gave me PTSD. I know, you're wondering why the three stars? Well, as much as I hated it, I can't actually tell you it's bad. Eco is a brilliant, talented writer. I simply can't imagine why he chose to use his talent to tell this particular story. Here are some of the issues I had with the novel:
  • The required knowledge of history was oppressive. Without that knowledge, the novel was almost impossible to follow and/or appreciate.
  • The cast of thousands, all with multi-syllabic foreign names, was impossible to keep track of, especially as characters would reappear decades after their last appearance in the book.
  • Despite the sheer amount of stuff that happens within these pages, the story moves at what, for me, was an excruciatingly slow pace. I'm not actually sure how Eco managed that.
  • Not only is the central character a truly awful human being, there really is no one to like or care about much in the book.
  • While at first I was able to shrug off the anti-Semitic content of the novel, after 464 pages of the most vile garbage imaginable, it really, really got to me. As a Jew of European descent, no matter how ridiculous and over-the-top the hatred was (from all characters, not just Simonini), I know that everything Eco wrote was very reflective of the attitudes of the era. It made me ill. Make no mistake; I don't believe Mr. Eco is an anti-Semite. I just didn't need to read this hatred. It hurt me.
Umberto Eco is a great writer, but any way you chose to look at The Prague Cemetery, I don't believe to be among his strongest works, and it is certainly not one of his more accessible titles. Despite Mr. Eco's talent, I can't recommend this book to anyone. And it'll be a long time before I decide to read him again.


  1. I have just completed this masterful work by one of the few great minds of our present era. I must say that I am not in full accord with Susan's take.
    With regard to the general outline of the the development of the various conspiracies one may read chapter one of Eco's brief non-fiction work, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy. Here he briefly describes the inventions/reinventions of the novel.
    Regarding the volume of historic information/names: part of the reason I read Eco is to learn and to push my mind.
    The central theme is hatred, as it pertains to the human condition. Anti-semitism is the vehicle he uses in order to demonstrate his ideas. Eco has frequently peered from beneath the shadow in order to understand the light. He reinvents the invention through this book (and Foucault's Pendulum). He accurately tells us that "man's principal trait is a readiness to believe anything;" that "it's always easy to find a good enemy." He advises that hatred is the issue of all. He demonstrates the three great 'evils' of that time in Europe: the masons, Jews and Catholics (particularly Jesuits).
    Recall that as he is concluding the novel he mentions "it was ... a profitable business." He follows that advising that Simonini would help exterminate the Christians but there are too many and the Jews would do it themselves if it were possible. Is he alluding to sections from the Talmud?
    Further, any comparison of Eco to Dan Brown is absurd. Brown builds upon those inventions (mostly anti-Catholic) feeds them and then relies upon Eco's insight that people may read something in a 'novel' and then recall it as fact later.
    Eco does all peoples a favor by exposing the darkness in all humanity, that we may be consciously aware of it and work together to fight it. I firmly believe his intention is not to be inflammatory in any manner whatsoever, but rather to harshly expose the reader to (hopefully) latent feelings of hatred that may drive individuals to the actions of a Simonini. For another 'novel' that deals with hatred, from an Asian perspective, I suggest Susako Endo's, SIlence.

  2. Susan , I got to tell you that "violently hating" won't get you near what U.Eco wanted to express in his masterpiece ," The Prague Cemetery" . You are right , you must be "versed" in very different domains. Being accustomed with his writing style may show you a interesting perspective, the book- this Simonini - is an autobiographical resemblance and the fact that the writer turns Descartes' " I think therefore I am " in a " I hate therefore I am " is hilarious as his attitude regarding S. Freud(never the less, he is being ironical). I strongly believe that the whole book is Eco's motto : this "violently hating" ; Hope that you've read more books of Eco since 2011