“The narrator, to be honest, has often found it difficult finding his own way around, but feels a competent reader need not become lost in the detail and should enjoy the story just the same.”
-from an afterword titled ‘Useless Learned Explanations’
As a semiotician, philosopher, essayist, literary critic and former Harvard professor, we can be sure that Umberto Eco is a smart, well-read man. If he creates a narrator who has difficulty navigating his own creation, what chance do we readers possibly have at it?
If you need to know exactly what’s going on in a story as you read it, do not go anywhere near this book. But if, as the narrator suggests, you are a ‘competent reader’ who doesn’t get ‘lost in the detail’ you are likely to enjoy The Prague Cemetery immensely. The narrative takes place all over the second half of the nineteenth century, featuring spies, counter-spies, secret service agents, literary giants, and Simonini, our dual-personality protagonist who has the world in his palm thanks to unusual talents as a forger of documents. There is no natural space in this plot for anything resembling ‘clarity’.
Most novels can’t pull this off, but for the author of such historical masterpieces as The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before, readers know they are in good hands and Eco proves it by pushing the novel forward at a dizzying, schizophrenic pace. It helps that every 4 - 5 pages the author’s own ink-drawn illustrations are added to animate the endless barrage of characters. And food. It’s hard to get to know any characters in this world, but they are always eating, always hungry, and maybe that’s how Eco made this impossible novel work so well.