The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco: book club discussion questions

As a reminder, book club discussion questions generally contain spoilers. If you’d like to order this book from the Library Service before spoiling yourself, head over to the catalogue.

 Prague Cemetery cover

Umberto Eco’s books are characterised by a search for secret knowledge. What secrets are kept, and by which characters, in this book? Another theme is that the secrets gradually destroy or liberate their keepers. Which knowledges destroy their holders in this book? Which liberate their holders? Does a secret have to be exposed to be liberating or destructive, or can merely keeping it harm or aid a character?

The setting for this novel is precisely of a particular time and place. How does this add to the book? Could the same story have been told in a more stylised or fantastic setting?

Eco claims much of the book’s contents are “true” in the sense of being what historical people believed to be true. Are there any points in the plot where characters, believing things to be true, act in ways which the average modern person would not act?

Eco also claims that only the main character is made up, all of the others really existed. Does this matter, in the sense that the characters are not necessarily accurate portraits of historical figures, but rather Eco’s interpretations of them?

How unreliable is the main narrator in this book? What does an unreliable narrator, in this case, let the author get away with that an omniscient observer would not? Who is the third narratorial voice, do you think?

Eco stated in interviews that he wanted to create as unlikable a character as possible for the protagonist. How much do you dislike him, on a visceral level? Was that important ot the success of the book as a work or art, or as a leisurely read? Were any of the characters likeable?

The text itself is syntactically complicated. Does this interfere with the story, for you, or does its relative turgidity add to the sense of piecing things together?

The novel is set at a time when widespread mass communication was just becoming possible, but methods of filtering the information for quality had not been developed. Can you see parallels to the dawn of the information society?

What is Eco trying to accomplish with the lists on so many pages?

The novel is densely packed with real historical events, but Nineteenth Century Europe is not particularly well-covered in the average Australian education. Did you find yourself confronted with indecipherable parts? Is this a bug or a feature?