The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco (REVIEW)
by Edward Alexander
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) .