Skip to main content

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I was told this would be a catered event.

I have always held the snug and comforting illusion that Eco, being a rotund, avuncular European in my mind (and in reality, once I’d bothered to look him up, judging from a photo grabbed from Wikipedia – Eco is the ever so slightly less hirsute mammal on the right) was a properly cuddly old European Intellectual (capital I no less) who wrote comfortable fables of a suitably magical realism or historical fantasy bent. No doubt, the rather good but clearly inadequate cinematic version of The Name Of The Rose is partially to blame.

A cursory investigation however dredged up a host of worrying and confusing concepts and authors from the swamps of my lost and forgotten academic hinterland – post-modernism, semiotics, intertextuality, honkadori; Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Roland Barthes. When I purchased a signed copy of The Prague Cemetery from the lovely people at Rossiter Books (you can follow them on Twitter so you can) I believed I was in for a challenging but entertaining belt through some of History’s (capital H mind you) most interesting events.

Not so cuddly.
What I got, however, made me anxious. Here I was, thoroughly enjoying the surprise, arising from the forgotten love of word-play, the fact that I didn’t need to care about Foucault or Kristeva to “get it”, the fact that my history lessons hadn’t let me down so much so that I couldn’t put all of the players into proper context, and the fun of the double and sometimes triple narrative (how the author likes to play with the Quixotic ‘found’ manuscript ruse!), and yet I found myself all too often identifying with a protagonist who fears and detests Jews to the point that his “work” eventually ends up on the tables of every anti-Semite in the Western world. Am I therefore an anti-Semite? Is Eco? Am I right to castigate myself?

Of course not - although at times I had to remind myself. My anxieties, as I understand it, are the pragmatic response of the reader to the symbolism and its uses in the novel. My own cosy assumptions were ripped asunder by the power and irresistible force of Eco’s prose. And of course, ‘Captain’ Simone Simonini does not just hate the Jews – he also hates the Jesuits, followers of Garibaldi, women, Palladians, Free Masons, Russians, psychologists and mystics to name but a few. To have all of that hate and bile decanted and distilled into one character, a curious gourmand whose actions might disgust but whose life – and therefore in this context, writings - you can’t help but wish to be prolonged, is quite masterful. I can’t remember a moment when I wished that he would get on with it, or when I found myself skipping a few lines to get back to the action. I loved it, a strong sentiment indeed you might say, coming as it does from a man who vacillates between delight and disgust when there are too many distractions in a novel. Eco is awesome, and I am truly cowed by the complete erudition that must underscore his writing talents – not that I was on his playing field to start with. However, as my boss once said, “aim for the stars, young man, and you will surely hit your ceiling.”

Comments

How's about that then?

Apochryphal Tales by Karel Čapek

Many (many) years ago, when I first read War With The Newts, after scouring the Waterstones' internal database (whimsically named Ibid, and from which one could print the details of books onto the till roll in light- and so it seems, time-sensitive purple ink which, on the inches thick ream of leaves I printed for future perusal, faded within a few months rendering my catalogued wish list so much locker mulch) for authors with a suitably Czech-sounding name, having put away an entrée of my first slim Hrabal, a palate-cleansing Kundera and in need of a meaty Moravian main course, I think I might have completely and totally missed just how funny it was, bloated as I was by the doughy and Victorian-sounding translation and the rather unlikely ideation of the future political terroir of mankind and their unusual amphibian slaves and, latterly, sappers, the newts.

How's that for a sentence David Foster Wallace? INTERROBANG.

Well, there's no chance that Čapek's typically Czech…

Free Fall In Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Trav is back, still grieving the loss of some chickadee or other whose death almost knocked him off his game, but not too shook up to set himself up with a few more lucky lovelies whilst tripping his way through another overly complicated and rather sordidly underwhelming plot. This time, some bikers are making dirty movies with minors on the set of a future classic hot-air-balloon movie. Travis falls into the action because a rich old geyser carks it in unusual circumstances and it affects the trust fund of a former marina-mate. And hirsute intellectual Meyer wets his pants towards the end. 

You may sense a fatigued, sardonic note in my precis. It's not that I don't still love John D., it's just that after embarking on the long game that is reading the entire Travis McGee oeuvre, I'm approaching the end and it feels long overdue. It's been fun, it's been enlightening, but it's also been a schlep. With the realisation I might now have fewer years left to me …

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …