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...

  • Arts and Culture Theater US & Canada New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    In his new play Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, playwright Oren Safdie tackles an issue that he has a major concern with: the relationship between Israelis and left-leaning Diaspora Jews with their “I know better” critical views. At the heart of the one-act play is Tony, a Jewish and gay Palestinian sympathizer who expresses strong anti-Israel sentiments when the play begins and at one point even sides with a Palestinian terrorist who holds his captive. Tony, who is also an [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    A Jewish comedy troupe released a parody video on Wednesday of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off in which they joke about taking extensive time off from work for Jewish holidays. “And the goyim gonna stay, stay, stay, stay, stay. And the Jews are gonna pray, pray pray, pray, pray. I’m just gonna take, take, take, take, take. I’m taking off,” goes the chorus for I’m Taking Off. Menachem Weinstein, the video’s lead singer, is the creative director at [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    JNS.org – The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on Dec. 15 presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time. That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Music US & Canada EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem. The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Personalities ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    JNS.org – It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers—high on heroin, rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt. But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the son of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi replaced Israeli star Gal Gadot as the female lead in the new Ben-Hur remake, Hollywood.com reported on Tuesday. The Homeland actress will play Esther, a slave that Ben-Hur sets free and falls in love with. Gadot quit the movie when it became clear that filming conflicted with her schedule for the Man of Steel sequel. The Israeli actress plays Wonder Woman in the superhero film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Actor Jack Huston takes on the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.