The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco (REVIEW)

November 5, 2012 7:15 pm 1 comment

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco.

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco, trans. Richard Dixon (HoughtonMifflinHarcourt, 2011).

The center of this novel is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a catastrophically influential fabricated  account of the minutes of a  meeting (which never took place) in Prague’s ancient cemetery of “learned Elders of Zion” organizing Jewish bankers and trade unionists, rabbis and atheists, capitalists and communists, to conspire in perfect harmony to eradicate Christianity, steal the wealth of gentiles, and take over the world. Concocted  by order of the Paris branch of the Czarist secret police between 1899 and 1902 to  disseminate the “secret protocols” of the World Zionist Congress that had been held in Basel in 1897, it was published in 1905 and, after the mass slaughter of World War I and the Russian Revolution,  became the deadliest document in the history of antisemitism.  “When this book becomes the common heritage of all people,” wrote Hitler in Mein Kampf, “the Jewish peril can then be considered as stamped out.”

The Protocols are a gross and clumsy fabrication, ending with the Jews’ declaration: “Ours is an ambition that knows no limits, a voracious greed, a desire for ruthless revenge, an intense hatred.” This monument to stupidity’s influence in world affairs was exposed as “forgery”  in 1921, yet  became a perennial bestseller in Europe and then the Arab world. Henry Ford printed excerpts in his Dearborn newspaper and  distributed  500,000 copies free of charge.  Originally a favorite of right-wing politicians eager to blame  Jews for secularism, democracy, communism, psychoanalysis, and  pornography, Protocols ideology, outside of Islam, is now  an obsession of “progressives,” including  Jewish ones. Writers in  Tikkun, for example,  warn of  “conspirators” who run our government on behalf of “Jewish interests,” and they invoke “the industrial sized grain of truth  in the Protocols.”  Noam Chomsky  alleges that the only reason antisemitism is now  an “issue” is that “privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98%  control.” Thomas Friedman charges that any  congressional support for Benjamin Netanyahu  is “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby.”

But unless you  begin reading Prague Cemetery at p. 439, where a four-page appendix entitled “Useless Learned Explanations” clues you in to the book’s organization and plot, you may not discover the centrality of this poisonous document until Chapter Twelve, “A Night in Prague,” starting  at p. 191. Eco’s appendix provides the crucial information that “the only fictitious character in this story is the protagonist, Simone Simonini,” a retired army officer whose  grandfather had the dubious distinction of inserting the Jews into earlier (French) works of conspiracy-mongering that blamed  shadowy schemers—Jesuits and Freemasons in particular– for undermining legitimate governments. Grandpa Simonini also provided the protagonist with his guiding principle in life: odi ergo sum (I hate therefore I am.)  All other important characters, Eco tells us, “actually existed, and said and did what they are described as saying and doing in this novel.” Among them are Alfred  Dreyfus  and  Dr. Froide,  who, intrigued by the split personality Simonini shares with a priest named Abbe Della Piccola, persuades him to write his life story. Eco has not  invented the characters and their doings—what novelist could be so wildly imaginative as to invent the incredible  phantasmagoria  of “real” European Jew-hatred?—but   imagined  their inner lives, as they imagined  Prague’s cemetery, “the sinister moonlit center of the universal conspiracy.”

If you don’t start at the back of this book,  you may find yourself wandering aimlessly , often (but not always) enjoyably,  through chapter after chapter (brilliantly illustrated) about Garibaldi, Mazzini, Italian nationalism,  Freemasons,  Jesuits, devil worship, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune (1871), voodoo, black masses, the occult, the sewage systems of late 19th century Europe, the Dreyfus Affair (also dependent upon a Simonini forgery, “the cataclysmic results of his single hour’s work as scribe”),  and menus from (so it seems) half the restaurants in Turin and Paris. (Isn’t the most dehumanized and disgusting sinner in Dante’s Hell the Glutton, perhaps an ancestor of Simonini,  named Ciacco?)

This is a historical novel written by a man who, drunk on history and forgetting that exclusion is as much a function of intellect as inclusion, has produced what Henry James called “a loose, baggy monster” of a novel. James applied that derisive term to such nineteenth-century masters as Tolstoy, but War and Peace, by comparison with The Prague Cemetery , is as tightly constructed as a Shakespearean sonnet. Eco’s intention is admirable: to sound the alarm  alerting us to the madness of Europe’s most effective and enduring political ideology. After a brief period of post-war contrition ( the Holocaust had, so to speak, given antisemitism a bad name) Europe, the real “dark” continent, is once again wallowing in its filth.

Eco’s protagonist, whose diary determines the perspective from which the entire story is told,  is a lunatic, forger, international spy, stool pigeon, misogynist, glutton,  Jew-hater, and  murderer). His antagonists are no better than he is; rhetorically, they compete mainly in claiming to outdo him in Jew-hatred. Some take the position that “when in doubt, blame the Jews”; others say “when not in doubt, blame the Jews  too.” A typical conversation, repeated in countless variations, goes like this: “Has someone drugged me? Boullan? …Or the Jesuits? Or the Freemasons?…The Jews! That’s who it must have been. ” Or this: “Who are the capitalists? The Jews, the rulers of our time….Who are the Jews?…They’re Protestants, Freemasons.” But are Protestants Jews?  “Jew and Protestant are the same…all learn to read the will of God from the same book as the Jews.”  Jews are also, of course, “behind the Freemasons, and the Freemasons had sided with the Commune, and the Communards had shot an archbishop. The Jews had to be involved in some way. They killed children, so killing archbishops was hardly a problem.”  Collectively, Simonini’s antagonists, like himself, are no better than the sweepings of a Greyhound bus station. American Jews often fear that “in the warmest of hearts, there is always a cold spot for the Jews”; but the hearts of Eco’s representative Europeans can be warmed only by hatred of the Jews.

Nor is it only the political view of Jews that is a farrago of laughable contradictions, all of them packaged, in the book’s conclusion, into the Protocols. “All Jews are musicians. Pianists, violinists, violoncellists—they’re all Jews.” On the other hand, “the Jews were alien to music.” Gentiles recognize  “Jewish inferiority from the fact that they write in the opposite way, unlike normal people,”  yet Jews are also intellectually superior, “anything but stupid.”. (This last  antisemitic fantasy may be more lethal than the blood libel  because Jews themselves  believe it.)

Given all the unrebutted antisemitic allegations filling the book, it’s not surprising that  its   publishers thought it prudent to have it  blurbed by Cynthia Ozick, America’s most articulate scourge of the “new” antisemitism. She calls Eco a  Zola posing as the devil and describes The Prague Cemetery as “a satanically dangerous novel, as are all ironic tales, especially if they should fall into the hands of a naïve reader. So naïve readers, country bumpkins, gullible gapers, keep away! This magnificently sly, scarifying, circuitous history …  is meant solely for the wise, the intrepid, and…the righteous.” If you don’t belong to that select trio, steer clear of this book.

Edward Alexander’s latest book is THE STATE OF THE JEWS: A Critical Appraisal (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction Books , 2012) .

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.