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on 18 June 2012
There are three points mentioned by many other reviewers on this site which I would also like to address:

1) The main character.
There can be no doubt about it, Simonini is just about as hateful, craven, and ignorant a monster as you will come across in literature. I sincerely hope that you will find it impossible to identify with him. So most of the joy you will get from this character is likely to stem from the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) giveaways through which Simonini betrays the profoundness of his stupidity, even of his madness.

2) The historical setting
Yes, this is set in the nineteenth century, largely in France and Italy, and an interest in what took place in that period culturally and politically is probably necessary to get into this novel. This is partly because the book suffers from a severe lack of plot and development - there is no mystery, nothing to be found out, no development of character. Simonini forges documents and is involved in other criminal activities, we know that from the start, and that is what he does right up until the end. The narrative ploy around the identity of Abbé Dalla Piccola is resolved in a way that is not exactly a let-down, but is also far from being a twist.

So what you are dealing with is in fact a series of episodes, loosely connected through the motif of conspiracy. I did not recognise many of the battles and political allusions, bar the Dreyfus affair, with which I am somewhat familiar. So for me, what I most connected to was how Eco weaves into his fiction allusions to the literary world, both that contemporary to his story and that not (thus for instance, the references to Léo Taxil contain anachronistic allusions to James Joyce).

Between them, these two aspects mean that this is a rather difficult book, centred not so much on plot and character than on an intriguing game around three levels of understanding which intersect and clash in various ways: how much Simonini knows, how much the narrator understands, and the knowledge that we, the 21st century readers, may have.
Which brings me directly to my last point.

3) Dan Brown
Comparisons of this book to the work of Dan Brown are in my opinion somewhat off the point. Brown writes thrillers, plot-boilers, which have historical fact and fiction crammed into them for entertainment. Apparently his work is badly researched, and in my own opinion, he relies on cheap effects where even the least bit of common sense shows you that he warps basic facts so they fit into his grid. For instance, he needs the Gnostic Gospels to be mysterious, secret, forbidden writings. They are not. Here's a Kindle edition:

Eco's approach to history is always twofold. As a storyteller, he gleefully indulges in anecdotes both obscure and canonical, and always it is understood that we are not meant to take everything as a faithful rendition of fact. At the same time, his is also the approach of the academic. Eco has a thorough understanding of many aspects of cultural history (he has written a number of good books on an impressive array of topics to do with history, philosophy, and art). This understanding informs his writing, and where he departs from fact, I would usually suspect he is conveying more than just plot.

Of the two authors, Eco is simply the more sceptical one, and his scepticism is reflected in his hesitation to present you with a simple solution. To him, there can never be a narrative master key, only the different reports of the different people who witnessed and now describe the same events. Of Dan Brown, Eco has said:

- "Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, `Foucault's Pendulum,' which is about people who start believing in occult stuff."
- Interviewer: "But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel."
- Eco: "No, in `Foucault's Pendulum' I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures."

(Amazon won't let me post the source's web-address, but you can find the interview through Google by searching for "ny times magazine questions for umberto eco")

In conclusion
there remains to explain why I give this novel only four stars. Well, for all its qualities, amongst which are a pleasingly nonchalant style of writing, a main character whom I loved to hate, an amusing web of literary references, and a number of appetising recipes, there are enough problems here to make this one of Eco's weaker books. The plot, as I said, is thin, and the sheer number of characters we are confronted with can sometimes be difficult to manage, especially since none but Simonini and the Abbe Dalla Piccola achieve any vividness. Overall, this work can perhaps be said to share some of the faults of "Foucault's Pendulum," (lengthiness, a certain occasional dryness), and some of the strong points of "The Island of the Day Before" (witty use of the historical setting, black humour).
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on 7 December 2011
Simonini, Eco's anti-hero, is the most remarkable invention of the creative mind. This misanthrope, this misogynist, this anti-semite, anti-Jesuit, anti-masonic, anti-everybody but himself, is the most despicable person to "grace" the pages of the novel.
He is a forger, lier, cheat and betrayer of friends. He is so awful that at times he can't live with himself and adopts an alta-ego as a priest, at least that's my reading of this complex and intriguing story. He is so awful, that like the animated cartoon "Despicable me", you end up laughing at his cunning and his psychopathy. This is Eco at his best, weaving his fictional ant-hero into the weft of true historical events that include the genesis of the infamous forgery "The protocols of the elders of Zion", that is still on sale in a bookstore not far from you. Jews might find the constant anti-semitic rant put into Simonini's mouth, uncomfortable to stomach but do not despair, filth comes out of sewers and Simonini's mouth is a sewer.
His one saving grace is his gastronomic tastes and the book is scattered with details of mouth watering recipes and menus. Somehow Eco makes these Epicurean punctuations extremely funny as a counter-point to the sheer nastiness of the mouth that gorges on the food described.
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on 4 November 2011
(As extracted from my Amazon review of the Italian original text Il Cimitero Di Praga)

The story tells of a crook with obscure intentions who, according to the author himself, is going to become the "most cynical and nasty character of all Literature".
In order to serve statesmen, secret services, ministers and police, this enigmatic figure travels around Europe among conspiracies, political intrigues and revolutions.

So, there's no lack of ingredients on Eco's part when narrating this enticing story, built like a 19th century feuilleton, mixing the depths of a classic novel with the elaborate plots of a chilling thriller, the lot enriched with disquieting illustrations (we shouldn't forget that Eco is an emeritus professor of Semiotics - cf. inter alia, his A Theory of Semiotics).

One important point: bar the main character, all other interpreters of this novel are real and have done what they have done. Moreover, even the main character does things that have actually occurred, except that he does them in excess and that they probably have been done by diverse people.

Eco's magic, however, makes it so that, between secret agents, corrupt police, traitors, felon officers and sinful clerics, the only invented character of his book ultimately appears to be the most real of them all.

Eco brilliantly succeeds in painting a suggestive picture d'époque, emotionally involving us in a rich narrative full of surprises and in an exhilarating language that only a semiologist like him could produce. Precisely because of this, be warned: as for all of Eco's books, this too is not an easy read, and has a few psychological complexities... Not all you see on the page is actually there!
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on 10 February 2012
I enjoyed learning some of the turbulent history of Italy and France from this intriguing novel. In this story we retrace the life of a man who has been mixed up in spying and deception, including the forging of documents, for his whole life; in fact it was his primary source of income.

Eco uses the same tool he used in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, i.e. the experience of an amnesiac recovering his memory, to unfold the history leading up to the time when the narrator is telling his tale. Captain Simon Simonini is not the most pleasant of men as is attested early in the book when he lambasts, in the most explicit of terms, his distaste of firstly Jews, then the Germans, next the French, the Italians, the Catholic Church (especially Jesuits), and Freemasons. At one point he concludes that Jesuits are merely Masons dressed as women. At several points in the story he expresses his total distaste of all things female. It appears there is no-one in the world he likes.

His one saving grace is his delight in good food, and we are treated to descriptions of some delicious meals, and even a couple of recipes.

Eco's shrewd observations and use of language provide the reader with some great phrases and generalised descriptions, all this adding to the flavour of the book and helping to demonstrate the way Simonini's mind works.

The Prague Cemetery is about governments wanting to manipulate groups of people, and to steer public opinion in a direction that leaves the politicians, or should I say the people in power, free to build up their own position and wealth. In particular, Eco deals with the deliberate ploy to instil hatred of Jews around the world.

The explicitly named central target of this book is the forged document known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document was produced by the Russians in 1905 to stir up hatred and convince the world that there was a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

Some people have interpreted Eco's book as being anti-Semitic, but it is quite the opposite. It emphasised the phoney nature of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and uses this forged document to describe how people can manipulate opinion and use false documents to create their desired political environment. The case used in this book is the stirring up of hatred towards the Jews, but it can be interpreted on a more general level as describing the tendency governments have for creating a common enemy for the people to focus their attention on and act as a distraction to allow the government get on with bettering the position of its members. It is exactly the type of ploy used after the Cold War to vilify the Iranians as a replacement for the Soviets; and the creation of a clear and present danger, such as the abuse of intelligence reports to justify the start of the second Gulf War.

I enjoyed this book and intend to dip into it often to pull out phrases and to re-read some of Eco's clever prose. Eco's books do not always appeal to me but I found this one great entertainment and quite informative.
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on 2 October 2012
I'll admit I am a fan of Umberto Eco but I was very surprised at how much of an impression this book made on me. The negative criticisms regarding the protagonists' vile anti-semitism miss the point entirely. The language and opinions expressed by the character penetrated many levels of society in Europe, Russia and even the good old USA in the late 19th century. All you need to do is read a little about the Dreyfuss affair to know that many characters from the book (e.g. Drumont) were popular real historical characters. The appalling (and to most modern ears absurd) words which Eco puts in their mouths come from contemporary records. If you can't stomach Ecos description of these attitudes you cannot stomach history - admittedly a pretty sordid and depressing history.

The disturbing thing is, of course, that the insane conspiracies referred to in this book are still widely held in some parts of the world and amongst otherwise ordinary people who find a flimsy but exotic conspiracy more appealing than an evidence based search for truth.

The book is brilliantly written and is a powerful reminder about how evil ideas can gain traction in spite of (or because of?) their preposterousness. This is also quite a humorous book and for me at least a real page turner. This book is rich in real historical characters whom I'm looking forward to learning about.

Can't believe Eco wrote this when he was almost 80....
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on 30 September 2012
It must be tough being Umberto Eco. "The Name of the Rose" was a critical success as well as a huge best-seller nearly thirty years ago, and he has found it impossible to reproduce that success since. "Foucualt's Pendumum", his second novel, was the only one I ever read more than once.
"The Prague Cemetery" has been hailed as a return to form. It's certainly a return to subjects he does well - European history, plots, conspiracies and secret societies. But whereas "The Name of the Rose" was written out of his deep knowledge of the Middle Ages and a real and professional interest in semiotics, his new novel has the feel of material conscientiously researched. He's not really at home in the nineteenth century, and it shows. The story rattles along well enough, with plenty of interesting events and characters, but the central mystery (inasmuch as there is one) is not very interesting, and the solution is obvious from the start.
For a book that wears its erudition so heavily there are also annoying errors. The description of the area of Paris where much of it is set (and which I know well) contains odd, unforced errors, and there are a number of translation mistakes, though whether from French into Italian, or Italian into English,is impossible to say.
If Eco had never written "The Name of the Rose" I suspect we would look at this book differently. But he did, and unfortunately, as time passes, there seems little chance of him ever producing something to rival it.
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on 1 March 2013
This book is about the rise of anti-semitism in European politics. It's a look at real events through the eyes of some very sceptical characters including a host of familiar names from history. Eco's turn of phrase, dark humour and post-modern approach will be familiar to those who have read his work before. If you haven't read any of his books before, then I wouldn't suggest starting with this one. It is certainly not a thriller, a mystery, or an adventure story in any sense. I enjoyed it, but this book was not what I expected it to be.
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on 5 June 2012
I've read some of the other reviews of Prague Cemetry with a sense of bemusement, I have to say. It sometimes seems that if a book is only slightly more challenging than Dan Brown, then its automatically labelled as obscure, with shoals of people abandoning it after 40 pages. Yes, I have finally turned into my Dad, but as he rightly mutters, "what planet are these people on?"

I really enjoyed this. I didn't find it confusing; I found it pretty easy to follow the narrative, albeit it not a wholly linear one - thank God! - its an interesting story, with all sorts of tengents to explore. It made me laugh, and it certainly made me want to turn pages. I'm really pleased to have read it, and with the sense of it being a return to form for Eco.

If you have any sense of adventure, then you'll love this. But the linear narrative mafia that abound these days - they are the sort of people who go on a country walk and stare straight ahead at the muddy track, ignoring the variety of trees and flowers just to one side of the main route. Eco's main route is clearly defined enough for anyone of average intelligence, and his things to see off to the side are magnificent.

And if you need a bit of help, he's put a map in the back of the book.....
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on 4 March 2012
The scale of the Novel is in keeping with the past great books. it is a brave Italian that, albeit through an anti hero, scorns Garibaldi and the Thousand!!It is true that it is patchy in places but, particularly when the action moves to France, he catches the menacing and chilling neurosis of the end of the Second Empire and the faltering start of the Third Republic perfectly. Simonini's evil character like many Jewish Conspiracy peddlars is combined with sybaritic tendancies. The restaurant scenes are amusingly done, particularly the meeting with Freud. Murder and fine dining were common Nazi pursuits and other reviewers who thought the book anti semitic were really off the page. The constant recalling of the anti hero's grandfather's xenophobia and the complicity of the Roman Catholic in his creation of the forged Protocols relects the time with some great humour but, but also recounts a reality of late 19th century Europe's obsession with the creation of the enemy within. it is the committment of the state in France Russia and Germany to perpetuate hatred of the Jews that feeds Simonini's epicurean appetite. And yes who couldn't wonder if there was in fact a bit of a dig at the outrageous plagarism of Focault's Pendulum in the character of Goedesche who steals some of the forgers (forged)material for a sensational and hit of a novel.
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on 27 December 2011
Not an easy read at all, but rather incredible and well worth the effort. I've already read 'The Plot' by Will Eisner (about the Protocols and with an introduction by Umberto Eco as it happens) and so some of the plot and characters were familiar to me. It seems that an interest in the Protocols has been with Eco for some time, but it's a bit of a leap to suggest he's an anti-semite (surely?). Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed myself reading this, and pretty much gobbled it down over three Christmas-holiday days.
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