Umberto Eco – The Prague Cemetary

With my 200th post I have reached another small milestone. It has taken less than 2 years to get here. Not too bad I say.

Umberto Eco is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Foucault’s Pendulum. Because of this I am always interested in his work in the hope that he can achieve a greatness similar to that book. Sadly the books he wrote after Foucault’s Pendulum were far from its supreme level. I have picked up his most recent work, The Prague Cemetery (2010), and can already say that he has not succeeded again.

However, there are some noteworthy points. Let me first start with the weaknesses. The Prague Cemetery is a historical novel, set in the second half of nineteenth century Europe. This does not have to be a weakness if only many important historical events play a role in the story and thus defining it’s development. This is especially influenced by the format Eco has written the story in. As he has done several times before the novel is a book within a book as most of it is a recollection from the diary of the main character. As a consequence the story covers a long period of time in which the character retells the historic events and the minor role he has played in them. The effect of this is that the story is fragmentary and spends little time with different characters. The main character gets all the focus which makes the other characters, often real historical persons, rather one-dimensional. They remain distant and most are seen only for a short time. The main character himself doesn’t seem to change at all over time. This is explainable, but nevertheless a bit dull as we experience him over many years.

Because of the diary format, stylistically the prose is nothing peculiar. Like I have noted in the works after Foucault’s Pendulum Eco uses the lack of stylistic skills of the narrator to be lazy about the presentation of his writing. It creates no atmosphere or impact. It’s just a story, although it entertains well.

So with all this, historical events that dominate and do not provide just a background setting, lack of substantial characterization and unremarkable prose style, there are still many elements that make this a good novel. Eco is an erudite person. His knowledge of things is vast. He manages to provide historical events that few have taken notice of and takes them into the spotlight, recording them in a somewhat absurd light while human nature can be like that to make it realistic. His characters and settings mostly take place in the shady environment surrounding the events and with this he creates a strange and entertaining view of what could really have been going on. Truth, deceit and lies are hard to distinguish from each other. Eco doesn’t hesitate to show that not everyone is being fooled that easily. The problem is that nobody is able to see the real truth anymore. To can only see what they are allowed to.

Although I mentioned that the diary style and the way he used the historical events to dominate the story, they are all in the style of the classic historical feuilleton stories of the mid-nineteenth century. He does not hesitate to point this out by giving a small role to the famed author Alexandre Dumas and lets the main character be involved in the same industry as well. With this he created a metaphysical novel, representing what he is writing about. I only noticed it because I have been reading Dumas’ novels the past year.

The whole setup of the diary forms the true gimmick of this novel, one that I hesitate to disclose, although the reader will find it out fairly soon in the novel himself. Let’s just say that the diary is not what it looks like. Eco uses it to great effect and entertainment. Still I sometimes wonder if he could have used it even more stronger. Too much time is spent on the telling of the general story and the historic events, while there could have been a greater focus on the gimmick and develop it even more.

In the end I could consider The Prague Cemetery to be Eco’s best novel since Foucault’s Pendulum. It does not come close to that level. It does manage to rise above the average level of the novel since. It contains many entertaining elements to be a great read and it will, as Eco always does, let the learn about things he knew little about and broaden his perspective.

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