Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Features Opinion Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Late Friday night, on November 13, I was headed for bed when an ominous news bulletin flashed across my computer screen – something about a shooting in Paris. It wasn’t long before the “small number” of shootings and casualties began to double and triple and quadruple. The locations of attacks seemed crazily disorganized, and the tweets and videos became more and more horrifying. It was a long night for many stunned observers. We tried to understand what was happening, and […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Theater BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    In an interview with the Israeli site nrg on Wednesday, Belgian-Jewish stage actress Noemi Schlosser recounted immigrating to Israel after her career in Europe was destroyed by BDS. Schlosser said she had enjoyed success in Belgium and international acclaim until she was targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for her pro-Israel stance during Operation Protective Edge — last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. She described watching the theaters where she performed go from packed to nearly empty over a short period of […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →