Umberto Eco and Treacherous Texts

Conspiracy theories and intense historical settings are Umberto Eco’s forte, and here he turns his attention to one of history’s most persuasive and destructive false texts - with mixed results.

Benjamin Balint
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Benjamin Balint

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco (translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
464 pages, $28

Provided they exert sufficiently seductive explanatory power and narrative hold, untruths, falsehoods and forgeries direct human affairs.

Umberto EcoCredit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

Such is the premise of the latest offering from the Italian writer Umberto Eco, 79, a retired professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, best known for his novels “The Name of the Rose” ((1980 and “Foucault’s Pendulum” (.(1988

Eco’s impressively researched new novel, “The Prague Cemetery,” takes the form of a series of flashbacks recorded in a diary written in 1897-98 by a 67 year-old with a diseased imagination and a split personality named Captain Simonini, the forger of the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In a letter to the reader that prefaces the book, Eco writes that he has endeavored to make its main character and its only fictional figure “the most cynical and disagreeable in all the history of literature.” This is no empty boast. Eco happens to know something about disgusting figures. In his book “On Ugliness”((2007, he reflected on all manner of repulsiveness, obscenity and deformity.

Simonini, a shameless plagiarist and cold-hearted murderer, embodies all three. His parents named him after Simon of Trent, an Italian boy whose disappearance in 1475 was blamed on Jews accused of draining his blood for use in Passover matzah. (The Catholic Church removed St. Simon from its Calendar of Saints only in 1965). As though conforming to the blood libel that lent him his name, Simonini is a man corroded by his own resentments. He has spent his life breathing in second-hand loathings. His self-declared motto is “odi ergo sum” I hate, therefore I am.

Not unusually for his time, Simonini’s fevered hatred found in the Jews its ideal object. “I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years,” he confides to his journal. And yet, he doesn’t know any. Of the two Jews he meets in the novel, one is a young Sigmund Freud, whom Simonini dismisses as a “little Semite parvenu, working his way into respectable families to advance his career.” The other, a Jewish convert to Orthodox Christianity (and a fellow forger) named Jacob Brafmann, informs Simonini that “the fundamental feelings animating the Talmudic spirit are an overweening ambition to dominate the world, an insatiable lust to possess all the riches of those who are not Jewish, and a grudge against Christians and against Jesus Christ.”

What medieval monastic life was to “The Name of the Rose,” the late 19th-century Parisian demimonde is to “The Prague Cemetery,” a narrative clotted with Masons, smutty Jesuits, scoundrels and Satanists, occultists and cranks, celebrants of orgiastic black masses, derelicts, anarchists, and a subterranean network of secret societies and confraternities. This is the fetid swamp which spawned the “Protocols,” a grotesque document that purports to be the minutes of a series of 24 secret meetings held by a diabolical cabal of Jews plotting to destabilize and then to dominate the world.
Outlandish conspiracies, forged manuscripts and hoaxes have for some time been Eco’s stock in trade. (This is a man who once appeared with Moshe Idel, professor of kabbala and Jewish thought at Hebrew University, on a panel called “The Syndrome of Conspiracy.”) Both the novelist and the conspirator plot.

So Eco’s long fascination with the “Protocols” comes as no surprise. The forgery figures in “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a novel that centers on a conspiracy put into motion by the Knights Templar. Eco returned to the subject in his essays “The Power of Falsehood” and “Fictional Protocols.” He contributed the introduction to Will Eisner’s graphic history, “The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”((2006.

But this book, another Eco entry into what might be called a “literature of facts,” represents the first full-scale imagination of how one of the most powerful pieces of conspiracy propaganda in history came to be.

Only with the left hand

Eco’s novels are nothing if not erudite, products of voracious reading and encyclopedic research more than of imagination. “I feel that I am a scholar who only with the left hand writes novels,” he has said.

Here Eco uses Simonini to give a history lesson. In 1806, just when Napoleon met with representatives of the Jewish community to extend citizenship to French Jews, one real-life Captain Simonini, grandfather of Eco’s fictional character, claimed in a letter that Masonry had been founded by the Jews, and that they had subsequently infiltrated all secret societies.

More than a half-century later, a French dissident writer named Maurice Joly published an anti-imperial satire called “Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu” ((1864, which took aim at Napoleon III’s authoritarianism by charging him with nefarious plots. The satire made no mention of Jews. Four years later, in his middlebrow novel “Biarritz” ((1869, the Prussian spy Hermann Goedsche refurbished Joly’s plot, borrowed a scene from Alexandre Dumas’s novel “Joseph Balsamo”(1849) depicting a secret Masonic gathering, and ascribed the whole thing to the Jews. In a chapter called “The Jewish Cemetery in Prague and the Council of Representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel,” Goedsche describes a nocturnal rabbinic conference at which the elders of Zion plot to exploit Christians, corrupt public morals, control the press and incite revolutions. Machiavelli’s cynical contempt for humanity in “Dialogues in Hell” becomes in Goedsche’s hands the Jewish contempt for the “goyim peoples.”

In his own novel, Eco gives each of these writers cameo roles, and has Simonini encounter similar real-life scoundrels like Major Osman Bey, author of “The Conquest of the World by the Jews” (1878); Alphonse Toussenel, a socialist anti-Semite; and Edouard Drumont, author of “La France Juive” (1886, reprinted more than 200 times) and editor of the popular anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole.

Eco describes how at the end of this strange transmigration of conspiratorial theories stands Simonini, his hands cupped to collect their bile. A man without scruple, Simonini plagiarizes from these long-obscure works, patches together the “Protocols,” and in the end sells his magnum opus to Peter Rachkovsky, a blackmailer, informer, anti-Semite, member of the ultra-right-wing Black Hundreds, and head of the Paris chapter of the Okhrana, the czarist secret service.

As the novel closes, Eco has his unctuous antihero guess with pride the infernal afterlife of his fabrication. “Thanks to my work,” Simonini confides to his diary, “all the Mordechais in this world are on their way to a tremendous raging pyre ...Fortunately,” he adds, “it wasn’t up to me to eliminate an entire people, but I was making a contribution in my own modest way.”

Literature blurred into life

And so it happened in reality. After Rachkovsky brought the manuscript to Russia, the fictive was given the sheen of fact, and literature blurred into life. Published in a St. Petersburg journal in 1903, and a couple of years later as an addendum to a religious tract by an anti-Christ obsessed monk named Sergei Nilus, the “Protocols” came to function as a kind of revealed, almost liturgical text. “For an Aryan,” the French writer Ferdinand Celine wrote in 1937, “nothing is more invigorating than to read them. It does more for our salvation than any number of prayers.”

The forgery became Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra’s bedtime reading. It was used by the Black Hundreds to incite murderous pogroms in 1905 and fired the reactionary White Armies after the 1917 Revolution.

After World War I, despite being exposed as a fake in 1921 by the Times of London, the “Protocols’” popularity took off. The Nazi Party published at least 23 editions between 1919 and 1939. Hitler cited it in “Mein Kampf” ((1924: “How much the whole existence of this people is based on a falsehood is apparent in the famous ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ Every week the Frankfurter Zeitung whines that they are based on a forgery: and here lies the best proof that they are genuine.” The document, Hitler believed, conclusively revealed the “inner logic” and “final aims” of the Jews. In the early 1920s the English edition crossed the Atlantic with the help of Henry Ford, the American automobile magnate, who serialized it in the Dearborn Independent and printed an additional 500,000 copies in book form.

The first full translation into Arabic (from the French) came out in 1926, and its star has not dimmed since. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia used to give copies to state visitors. In 1995, when the Arabic edition of then-Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres’ book “The New Middle East” was published in Egypt, it came accompanied by some unusual jacket copy: “It is precisely Shimon Peres who brings the decisive proof of their [the Protocols’] authenticity. His book confirms in so clear a way that it cannot be denied that the Protocols were true indeed. Peres’ book is the last but one step in the execution of these dangerous designs.”

The power of forgery

Fiction, among other things, ought to give pleasure. In the alchemy of art, even the ugliest circumstances, when represented in a work of fiction, can be turned into enjoyment. There is even pleasure, for example, in reading Philip Roth’s counterfactual history “The Plot Against America” ((2004, which imagines the rise of fascism in the United States of the early 1940s.

But “The Prague Cemetery” is ungainly and disjointed as fiction and sometimes pedantic as history. It doesn’t stay on a single course long enough for a narrative wind to fill its sails. It is strong on atmospherics but weak on character.

Simonini, the Forrest Gump of anti-Semitism, intersects with a dizzying array of historical episodes (Eco even has him forge the memo that got Captain Dreyfus convicted of treason in 1894), but he never quite comes alive. In other words, if the “Protocols” is a fiction that could not resist being taken as fact, “The Prague Cemetery,” a different sort of collage, is fact that resists rising to fiction.

Maybe this is as it should be. Hannah Arendt once wrote: “If a patent forgery like the ‘Protocols’ is believed by so many people that it can become the text of a whole political movement, the task of the historian is no longer to discover a forgery. Certainly it is not to invent explanations which dismiss the chief political and historical fact of the matter: that the forgery is being believed. This fact is more important than the (historically speaking, secondary) circumstance that it is forgery.”
The amazing and enduring power of the “Protocols” has little to do with the mind of its forgers and everything to do with the avidity of its consumers. In Eco’s telling, it turns out that the mind of the text’s producer is banal; it is stored with hand-me-down hatreds, with the static crackle of petty intrigues, with shallow and sham nihilisms. It is nothing but a rancid recycler of old, threadbare shmattes.

And yet whoever forged the “Protocols,” his hatred was the hatred of millions. His text allowed still allows peddlers of hatred and violence to use the Jew as the irresistible explanation of both their own failures and their social, economic or political unrest, and most of all to present themselves not as perpetrators but as victims. It is exactly in this sense, as Celine was frank enough to say, that the “Protocols” serve as a sacred text of expiation and salvation.

The real story, then, is one that “The Prague Cemetery” hints at but does not for all its polymath erudition manage to capture: our impotence in the face of an obvious forgery, an absurd pastiche against which the ramparts of reason afford astonishingly feeble protection.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author of “Running Commentary” (2010).



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