In the 1980s I read The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum and came away from those books knowing that I had been exposed to a brilliant mind. The complexity of the writing and the layers of plot turned many readers away, but I found it so refreshing to have a writer that demanded more from his readers and more importantly had faith in his readership. These are books that need to be read many times and each time the reader will develop a better understanding of the writer's intentions.
This brings me to The Prague Cemetery. Typical of an Eco book it took me a little while to settle in and fine tune my thoughts to pay proper attention and to relax so that Eco could take me where he wanted me to go. This book is set in 19th century Europe and explores the underlying conspiracies that surround a series of wars/conflicts that instead of being the work of a group is the nefarious dealings of one man. This man is Simone Simonini. He is a murderer, double agent, triple agent, but more importantly he is the man that can provide the documentation that proves that one side of a conflict is justified in their quest for power. In other words he is a master forger.
He finds his calling while apprenticed to a lawyer named Rebaudengo. He learns the fine art of providing the "missing" paperwork for a baptismal record that would allow an inheritance to be obtained or the "missing" will of a family patriarch who may have perished unexpectedly.
Rebaudengo explained. "What I produce are not forgeries but new copies of genuine documents that have been lost or, by simple oversight, have never been produced, and that could and should have been produced."
Simone becomes so good at the craft that he realizes that the only person between him and a very lucrative income is his mentor Rebaudengo. The proper paperwork miraculously is produced that exposes a "fraud" perpetrated by Rebaudengo and he is swiftly convicted and sent to prison.
Simone is the type of gentleman that governments find uses for and he is greedy enough not to be worried about the consequences of his actions. He becomes a forger, mercenary for hire. He provides documents that fan the flames of racism and cultism that leads to genocide and in one case the temporary toppling of a foreign government. He steals from his employers and from his agents working both sides of the equation to net as much money as possible for himself. He is a man without a moral compass except in the case of Abbe Dalla Piccola. Piccola became an inconvenience for Simone during one of his clandestine missions and Simone as he tended to do when cleaning up a problem, killed him. Simone becomes, unknowingly to himself, so out of sorts over the murder of Piccola that Piccola is actually resurrected in his own mind creating for a time a split personality. Simone becomes more aware of the Abbe as they begin sharing a diary and the missing time that Simone is experience is revealed in the dairy entries made by the Piccola personality.
The book is liberally sprinkled with sketches of the characters involved really evoking a Victorian Dickens feel to the novel. I found this book much more accessible than other Eco novels and actually laughed out loud a couple of times.
Back in 2000 I had planned to meet Umberto Eco. He was touring for Baudolino and was planning to come to the West Coast. Unfortunately due to health reasons he only finished his East Coast engagements and did not come to California. I had spent my last lira appropriating a copy of The Name of the Rose for him to sign, which now would be worth around $800 signed by the author. Well I may not have an $800 copy, but I am still glad that I bought Rose when I did, as even unsigned, The Name of the Rose is going for a couple of hundred dollars. I did pick up a copy of Baudolino from an East Coast bookseller flat signed by Mr. Eco.
Flat signed is preferred by collectors because the book was actually in the hands of the author. A book plate, signed by the author, does not have the same value to collectors.