11.12.11

Umberto Eco’s 'The Prague Cemetery' Brings to Life Ancient Hate

Umberto Eco dives deep into the weird, twisted story of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' and risks raising old hates anew. Daniel Levin reviews.

“Beware of faking,” Umberto Eco warned in his 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, “people will believe you.”

Unless he forgot his own advice, Mr. Eco should have expected the storm of controversy surrounding the release of his new novel, The Prague Cemetery. After all, the central character offers up a 444-page anti-Semitic variety show, ranting against “the Jew” in every dark alleyway of 19th-century Europe. Unsurprisingly, the Chief Rabbi of Rome had a few questions for Eco. So did the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, whose scathing review, went so far as to say readers may be persuaded by the book’s anti-Jewish vitriol.

Thinking this book isn’t the perfect holiday gift?  Not so fast.

Because The Prague Cemetery uses its despicable cast of forgers, scavengers, and anti-Semites to help Eco chase down the origin of the deadliest hoax in modern history.

The hoax was a so-called “historical” document, an apparent transcription of old rabbis (“The Elders of Zion”) secretly meeting at midnight in a cemetery in Prague to discuss their plans for worldwide domination via finance, politics, and medicine.

The document, known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, surfaced in Russia in 1905 and was quickly proven a blatant forgery. But it didn’t matter. Henry Ford funded the printing of 500,000 copies in the United States. The German translation was an instant bestseller. By 1936, Adolf Hitler called The Protocols his “warrant for genocide.”

But if The Protocols was a historical forgery, who wrote it?

Enter Umberto Eco’s latest malevolent creation, Captain Simone Simonini: a middle-aged 19th century forger, a raging anti-Semite, and an amateur chef. The kind of man who interrupts a rant to remind us Savoy cabbage is best cooked with roasted meat, four eggs, parmesan cheese, nutmeg, and sprig of rosemary.

But his most expert dish is hate.

Captain Simonini hates everyone. The French are “lazy, swindling, resentful.”  Italians are “better with poison than medicine,” and Germans “produce on average twice the feces of a Frenchman.”

But above all, Captain Simonini hates Jews. He dreams about them, theorizes about them, talks about them with every fellow ragtag con man he encounters.  Not that he’s sure if he’s ever met one. As forging documents against Jews becomes more lucrative, he laments “there was so much I didn’t know about the object of my repugnance.”

Will The Prague Cemetery’s own book-length recitation of age-old lies and stereotypes about Jews provide ready-made anti-Semites with a larger arsenal of imagery and rumor?

Simonini is a small-time forger who wants to hit it big. What conspiracy could unite the rising Marxists looking for a capitalist target, the Russian occultists looking for a mystical dark force, the French shopkeeper mired in debt, and even young priests guarding Christian morals? Ah, the Jew.

“Danger has to have one face,” Simonini instructs us. And here’s where it helps that this bastard is a good chef. He uses a dash of conspiracy theory from the French satirist Maurice Joly (but Joly’s allegations targeted the church, so he changed Jesuits to Jews), a pinch from the insane German postal worker Hermann Goedsche (have the Jews meet in a creepy cemetery), and a heaping spoonful of hatred from Eduard Drumont (worldwide domination must be their goal). 

But the most interesting part of The Prague Cemetery is not why one lunatic wrote The Protocols. It’s why a whole continent believed him. This is the book’s richest and most relevant theme.

“You don’t love someone your whole life,” one anti-Semite assures another.  “But you can hate someone your whole life.  Hatred warms the heart.”

For Eco, the strange truth behind Europe’s credulity is not intellectual but sensual. This is the erotic, intimate appeal of anti-Semitism that Eco portrays. The sumptuous appeal of its lies, the grandeur of its scope doesn’t need to make sense. It’s an addiction, numbing the complexities of one’s own life. Like all the wine guzzled in dark bars throughout this novel, anti-Semitism feels nourishing, but it is a sad, corrosive illusion. And like alcohol, the anti-Semite’s resistance builds. The theories must be intensified, generation to generation, to catch the same buzz.  

In the end, The Prague Cemetery is the portrait of Simonini’s fall, the dismantling of a hate-addict.  A man whose hatred so deeply creased his soul that it split in two, creating a psychosis in which Simonini believes that someone else—a man styling himself as a priest—is writing in his diary and sleeping in his bed. Unfortunately, Eco’s use of these alternate perspectives fractures the story and smothers the sort of suspense that most American thriller readers crave.

In his introduction, Eco says the novel may appeal even to readers “who know nothing about nineteenth-century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously.” That potshot against Mr. Brown’s readers is unfair. Truth is, they demand a narrative with greater cohesion and swifter pace than is delivered here. Eco could have used a trick or two from his evil chef, Simone Simonini. You want us to keep reading? Then make it taste so good we can’t stop. Many American readers—and this I guarantee—will have indigestion by page 75. 

Which is a shame because for all its difficulties, The Prague Cemetery is an  important novel.  The book’s implicit question is terrifying: are the same social frustrations at work today to revive The Protocols's anti-Semitism? Just like the start of the last century, Europeans are mired in debt, Russians are nostalgic for their former greatness, the church is losing ground, and Arab nations are struggling to craft a coherent picture of their future. Wouldn’t a single, clean target once again be the refreshing cool glass of water to all these nationalities stumbling through a desert of self-doubt?

Egypt has answered the question. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was aired as a TV miniseries watched by millions, accompanied by a new Arabic translation of the text. The forward began, “Hitler was not the first world leader who tried to defend himself against the Jewish conspiracy.” A Reuters survey found that when asked who was responsible for September 11, 7 percent of those polled, including Americans, answered “Israel.”  

Simonini is fictional, but the relentless creativity of his hatred is not. He will scavenge any book in any language for another puzzle piece. So the question arises: Will The Prague Cemetery’s own book-length recitation of age-old lies and stereotypes about Jews provide ready-made anti-Semites with a larger arsenal of imagery and rumor? With a million copies already sold, some have assuredly fallen into the wrong hands. Does Eco stay up at night wondering if any of those wrong hands belong to a future Simonini?

He should. We all should.

And maybe that’s the queasy feeling Eco wants us to have. Because if Foucault’s Pendulum suggests it’s a great crime to find a conspiracy where there is none, The Prague Cemetery presents a higher truth: the greater crime is to stand idly by as one is revived from its grave.