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.
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.