The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is the most influential anti-Semitic book ever published. Purporting to be the minutes of a top-level secret meeting to map out the Jews’ plans for world domination, it was exposed as a Czarist forgery within a decade and a half of its original 1905 publication in Moscow. Yet no one has ever determined its exact author. Enter Umberto Eco, the Italian scholar and polymath best known for his 14th-century murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1983). In The Prague Cemetery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 437 pages, trans. Richard Dixon), his learned and fascinating sixth novel, Eco spins an intricate web of story and scheming around the question of the Protocols’ authorship.
Eco’s conceit is that the author is Simone Simonini, a character he has invented—a notary, forger, plagiarist, spy, and murderer who lives in Paris in the mid-to-late 19th century, earning a livelihood by fabricating documents for anyone with money to pay and reason to dissemble. Simonini lives by the motto “Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am.” He hates the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and most of all the Jews.
As a teenager, he devours Joseph Balsamo, a huge 1846–1848 novel by his “intellectual hero,” Alexandre Dumas père, which describes “the Universal Form of every possible conspiracy.” Years later he is hired by Napoleon III’s secret police to spy on the Republican satirist Maurice Joly. (Philip Graves, a foreign correspondent for the London Times, established Joly as a source for the Protocols in 1921.) Sensing there is “an anti-Jewish market” in revolutionary Europe, Simonini seizes the opportunity to “recycle” the old material in a new form. He drafts a scene in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague—his one innovation—in which the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel, cloaked and hooded, with graying and goatish beards, gather to plot the destruction of Christendom. Suddenly everything comes together for him:
[O]nly when I had succeeded in reliving that terrible night was my resentment, my aversion to Jewish perfidy, transformed from an abstract idea into a deep, irrepressible passion. By God, it must indeed have been that night at the Prague cemetery—or at least through reading my account of the event—that had made me understand how that accursed race could no longer be allowed to corrupt our lives!
Simonini himself is the first to be duped by the Jewish world conspiracy. He is promised 50,000 francs for his “succinct report”—half from the Czar’s secret police, half from Prussian intelligence. The Germans are represented, however, by the novelist Hermann Goedsche. Goedsche is impressed by Simonini’s document but protests that, before any money can exchange hands, its authenticity must be proved. Simonini permits him to make a copy, and Goedsche straightaway publishes the cemetery scene under his own name and in fictional form. “What is the world coming to?” Simonini asks in despair. “Exactly what the Jews want it to come to.”
There the story might have ended, in Eco’s imagining, if not for the Dreyfusards—the French writers and scholars whom Georges Clemenceau first called “intellectuals.” Their efforts to clear Dreyfus’s name lead perilously close to Simonini’s door. Badly spooked, Simonini is on the verge of fleeing Paris when he is approached by Pyotr Rachkovsky, chief of the Czar’s secret service, who gives him two days “to flesh out that dossier of yours on the Prague cemetery” and convert it into something “relevant for today, not medieval fantasies.” When he is finished with the job, Simonini congratulates himself upon what he has accomplished. “Fortunately it wasn’t up to me to eliminate an entire people, but I was making a contribution in my own modest way,” he says. “And it was, after all, a profitable business.”
Eco has Simonini turning up wherever history is made: with Garibaldi as the revolutionary begins his effort to create the modern Italy; in the Paris Commune in 1870; in 1885 being treated by a “Dr. Froide”; and at the 1895 ceremony in which Dreyfus was publicly humiliated. Thus, the critics of The Prague Cemetery have been nearly unanimous in their descriptions of Simonini. He is “the Forrest Gump of anti-Semitism,” Benjamin Balint wrote in Haaretz, referring to Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 film. Likewise Rebecca Newberger Goldstein called him in the New York Times Book Review “a Forrest Gump of evil, always present where the action is.” Or, again, he is “a sort of hateful Zelig,” Stefan Beck wrote in the New Criterion, referring to Woody Allen’s pseudo-documentary of 1983; “a 19th-century Zelig,” David A. Bell agreed in the New Republic, “although far more active and malign.”
But these Hollywood allusions mangle Eco’s intentions. Simonini has far more in common with the filmmakers Zemeckis and Allen than with their innocent and amiable cinematic heroes. Like them, he recycles old materials and familiar scenes to reinterpret history, to fashion an ideological explanation of contemporary events.
Simonini corresponds to what Eco once described as the “naive reader,” who uses a written work as a relatively simple device to find meaning and thus falls victim to “the strategies of the author who will lead him little by little along a series of previsions and expectations.” A forger and a plagiarist must be the author of the Protocols, in other words—a fictional character who moves among historical figures—because no single individual wrote the book or could have written it. An entire historical era was required: 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 serially in partisan French newspapers) served as the press attaché to political ideology.
The best parts of The Prague Cemetery are full of engrossing information about 19th-century European culture and politics, especially literary life in fin-de-siècle Paris. Eco excels at rescuing obscure figures such as the anticlerical polemicist Léo Taxil and the anti-Semitic journalist Édouard Drumont from oblivion and showing how much of their literary careers—and the political controversies they engaged in—were determined by economic opportunities. The “only philosophical principle” to which the age’s literary men adhered was pecunia non olet (“money does not smell”).
The heady days of the Paris Commune, which would prove so enduring in Marxist thought; the fetid swamps of anti-Masonry, which have been so thoroughly drained that only the most serious students of European intellectual history know anything about them; the manufacture of 19th-century explosives; even the cuisine of contemporary Paris, which Simonini dwells on because it is his only passion outside of anti-Semitism—all these come alive in Eco’s pages. The Prague Cemetery is a reminder that Eco, the author of books on Thomas Aquinas, James Joyce, medieval aesthetics, and the philosophy of language, is as likely to present his research findings in a novel as in a series of lectures.
But, alas, Eco is not really much of a novelist, at least not in The Prague Cemetery. The most common word in the book might be next. Simonini finds himself deep in conversation with a historical figure who supplies him with one piece of the anti-Semitic puzzle. Next he seeks out another man, who supplies him with another piece—at some discursive length. (The form of the novel uncomfortably begins to mirror the Protocols: a cycle of set speeches with noisy narrative machinery to get from one to another.) The fact that Simonini is such a repellent character, as Eco admits in an afterword, is a lesser problem than he thinks. The real problem is that Eco has forgotten the first requirement of narrative fiction, as he himself explained it in an interview several years ago:
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.
But neither Simonini nor anyone else in The Prague Cemetery faces any decisions that could have gone the other way. There is, as a consequence, nothing for the reader to identify with. There are speeches to follow and arguments to unwrap, but no moral choices to agree or disagree with.
The conclusion difficult to avoid is that The Prague Cemetery would have been more successful as a literary history of anti-Semitism. Philosophically, as Eco demonstrates, anti-Semitism derives from conspiracy-theorizing, the search for what his protagonist calls the Universal Form of Conspiracy. Historically, it springs from the currents of hatred, suspicion, and antagonism that swirled around France after the Revolution. Its themes and images borrowed from (or contributed to) anti-Masonry and anticlericalism. To have established these two points would have been more than enough for a great book.
And perhaps one thing further: Eco hints (but never says outright) that all antagonistic and oppositional politics, even in more respectable versions like anti-fascism and anti-Communism, tend toward conspiracy theories. Nowhere is this truer than in the anti-Zionism of our own day. The Prague Cemetery might have eloquently shown how the conspiracy-minded anti-Semitism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was easily converted into the anti-Zionism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but Umberto Eco has a different—and, ultimately, less compelling—story to tell.