Many thanks for the bracing challenge of your letter. There’s nothing I like better than a quarrel over books, especially a book as important as Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery. Any book by Eco is important by virtue of having been written by Eco. Few other men or women since the Renaissance have been capable of sweeping with such insight and authority across such a wide array of fields — semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism and theory, philosophy, aethetics, the history of ideas, anthropology, religion, and popular culture (to name only a few). Quite apart from all that, The Prague Cemetery is important because it tackles an important subject, and does so in a way that is important in its failure.
You are right that I don’t think The Prague Cemetery is much of a novel, although there is much to admire in it. It is packed tight with historical information about everything from the economics of authorship in 19th century France to the specific details (very nearly the recipes) of contemporary Parisian cuisine. There’s a reason for the data-driven quality of the prose. Eco believes even the driest of humanistic scholarship is a story. One of the world’s greatest living scholars, he sees it as no abandonment or betrayal of his vocation to present his research findings in the form of a novel. In fact, he has done more perhaps than anyone to broaden the scope of the contemporary novel — to retrieve it from preciosity and self-regarding aestheticism and make it a serious contribution to culture again.
Despite the learning and the ambition, though, The Prague Cemetery remains an unsatisfying novel. You disagree. You say I am wrong to have suggested, in my original review in COMMENTARY, that the book “would have been more successful as a literary history of anti-Semitism.” Even worse, according to you I have begged the entire question of fiction, and in doing so I have badly missed the point of the novel.
May I take up your objections in reverse order? The main problem with The Prague Cemetery, I wrote back in January, is that it fails to satisfy the “first requirement of narrative fiction.” I wasn’t laying down arbitrary rules for fiction. The requirement here is Eco’s own. I quoted from an interview that Eco gave to the academic journal Diacritics in spring 1987:
The principal requirement of narration is that the plot offer alternatives with a certain frequency, and these alternatives cannot be predetermined. The reader must not know exactly what decision a character will make.
In writing The Prague Cemetery, Eco forgot his own “principal requirement for narration.” At no time do any of his characters decide a question that might have been decided otherwise. There is no ethical dilemma anywhere in the novel, because Eco is absorbed with something else. The Prague Cemetery devotes its energy to spinning the web of intrigue that produced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The book’s core term is Next (“Next I called,” “the next hours,” “The next morning,” “The next day,” “The next to arrive,” “the next few days (or nights),” “over the next six months,” “Over the next few years”). In short, The Prague Cemetery is a chronicle of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came to be written — a fictional chronicle, a narrative with a historical theme and consisting of episodes arranged in chronological order and loosely connected by the passage of time, but it is not really a novel. Not, at least, by Eco’s own lights. In the Diacritics interview, Eco goes on to say this:
If I tell you that a tribe of Indians attacks a stagecoach and that right away the Seventh Cavalry comes to the rescue, that isn’t narrative. For it to be narrative, someone on the stagecoach must decide whether to fight or not. The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions; he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.
The invitation to identify with the decisions of the characters is, in my opinion, the distinguishing mark of narrative fiction. No other form of human knowledge relies upon identification (in Eco’s sense) to do what it sets out to do. The “ethical response to a text” is the magic by which fiction contributes to human understanding. Without it, a text is not a narration, but merely a chronicle.
The Prague Cemetery lacks this ethical dimension, because it leaves none of the characters’ decisions open to question. But that’s because the characters “writ[e] themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction,” you protest. “The Protocols exists ‘outside’ [Eco’s] novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.”
And so we arrive at the heart of our disagreement. I say The Prague Cemetery would have been better as a literary history of anti-Semitism, you say you’re “willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.” Tabulating the results of Google Scholar searches, you imply that quite enough scholarship has been written on the Protocols. (The reality is that, over the past half-century, there have been only a handful of full-length studies, most notably Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide in 1967 and Cesare De Michelis’s The Non-Existent Manuscript in 1998.) You prefer The Prague Cemetery as fiction, because it reflects our “postmodern condition.”
Now, you are surely right that its postmodern aspect must have been what initially attracted Eco to his subject. Simone Simonini, his main character, the notary, forger, plagiarist, and mouchard (police informer) whom Eco advances as the author of the Protocols, is the only character in the book without a historical counterpart. Partly this is because no one knows exactly who wrote the Protocols, but partly this is because the invention echoes Eco’s theme.
No one person wrote or could have written the fiction of Jewish world conspiracy. “An entire historical era was required,” as I said in my original review: “an era of instability and revolutionary ferment, a style of political thinking that preferred hidden nefarious enemies to good-faith public opponents, and a literary market in which a special kind of popular fiction known as the roman-feuilleton, the novel published in serial installments in partisan French newspapers, served as the press attaché to political ideology.” To adapt Eco’s remark about Dan Brown, which you quote, the real author of the Protocols was a creature of the 19th-century conspiracy-theorizing out of which anti-Semitism emerged (and which eagerly received it). Like any other forger and plagiarist, he had no other existence, no independent existence.
And this conception of the Protocols’ authorship also echoes Eco’s postmodernism. The postmodern era, according to Eco, is the “era of repetition.” Postmodern texts recycle bits and pieces of earlier texts, retaking them, remaking them, entering them into what Eco calls an “intertextual encyclopedia” in which more than half the fun is recognizing the excerpts, quotations, allusions, and parallels. The naïve reader reads for a message; the postmodern reader — the Model Reader, in Eco’s phrase — “enjoys the way in which the same story is worked over to make it appear to be different.” This Model Reader may be “culturally very sophisticated,” or he may only be immersed in a culture in which the same elements, the same excerpts and quotations and allusions and parallels, appear over and over and over till recognition, no longer a conscious act, becomes the satisfaction of familiarity.
What Eco is proposing in The Prague Cemetery is that some such culture of repetition and familiarity is the true author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The fantasies and motifs of anti-Semitism were recycled and repeated and reworked and repeated in the 19th century until their original author could have been anyone who was intimate with the “intertextual encyclopedia” of Jew hatred. The thesis is daring: the cultural process of repetition, not any individual “author,” is responsible for the Protocols.
Eco does not present the thesis as a historical argument, however, but as a fictional character. If he had written The Prague Cemetery as the literary history of a forgery, he could not have invented the character of Simone Simonini, non-existent author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but he might have had something better: a clear hypothesis. The gain would have been substantial; the loss, less so.