Skating over the Abyss: A Review of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery

Steven Englund

American University of Paris, EHESS

The Prague Cemetery – the title refers to an apocalyptic midnight assembly in a Jewish cemetery where emissaries of the Twelve Tribes of Israel supposedly hatch a plot to take over the world – is a slow trek through the history of nineteenth-century European Antisemitism in general, and through the confection of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in particular. It arraigns virtually all the usual suspects among the ‘great scenes and characters’ in a grand guignol of French, Italian, German, and Russian Jew-hating. Only one truly fictional figure appears in the four hundred pages, and that is the book’s schizophrenic protagonist, Simone Simonini; he sometimes speaks in his other personality, the Abbot Dalla Piccola.  An ex-Carbonari and Garibaldian, Simonini has run away to France where he becomes a specialist in forged documents, eventually (of course) working for various secret police, including the Russian Okhrana. One implausible coincidence after another leads to one implausible occurrence after another – all implausibly arranged so that Simonini remains the deus ex machina of the entire piece (and the secret author of The Protocols), yet without tearing real history’s seamless web. Simonini is Walter Conkite, in Eco’s version of You Are There.

The Prague Cemetery’s best prose monuments include one or two finely chiseled ‘epitaphs’, such as this one, for France’s sole ‘great’ Antisemite, in the pre-World War I era, Édouard Drumont:  “[he] had a leonine mane and a large black beard, bent nose and fiery eyes, and you could have described him … as a Jewish prophet.  In effect there was something messianic about his anti-Judaism, as if the Almighty had given him the specific task of destroying the chosen people. … He hated the Jews, you might say, with love, with singlemindedness, with devotion – and with a fervor that sublimated all sexual desire.” (141)

There is the rare artfully tossed off metaphor (“There’s a certain melancholy when a duty is completed, a melancholy greater and more impalpable than the sadness of a steamship voyage” (427)) and the even rarer brilliant aperçu (“[The French] are proud to have a state they describe as powerful, but they spend their time trying to bring it down…” (10), and finally, there is this howlingly funny description of a black mass in Paris in the late 1890s:  “Two of the androgynes prostrate themselves in front of [the priest], raise his chlamys and together kiss his erect member. Then the whole group of adolescents fall [sic] at his feet and, while the boys begin to masturbate, the girls pull off each other’s veils and roll over each other, letting out voluptuous cries. The air is filled with other, more unbearably violent scents, and all those watching, first with lustful sighs, then gasps of rapture, gradually strip naked and begin to copulate, one with the other, with no distinction as to sex or age, and through the vapors I see a hag, over seventy, her skin heavily wrinkled, her breasts reduced to two lettuce leaves, her legs skeletal, rolling across the floor as an adolescent voraciously kisses what was once her vulva.” (392-3)

But such oases are precious few in this labyrinthine desert of a book.  The latest fictional Eco system recycles all the logorrhea of The Name of the Rose – the same endless piling of narrative Ossian onto descriptive Pella – but without the relief of the two sympathetic main characters. The grasping glutton, Simonini – with his motto odi ergo sum (I am hateful therefore I am) – is anything but the wise William or the innocent Adso. The Prague Cemetery is a tedious piece of popular history innocent of any true art or deep characterization.  Characters speak woodenly, in unlikely ways.  Here, for example, Eco has Capt. Esterhazy (of Dreyfus affair infamy) talking to Simonini:  “Heavens above, there are spies everywhere in this world and we can hardly be scandalized by another one here or there. The political problem is to demonstrate they exist. And to nail a spy or a conspirator, there’s no need, you’ll agree, to find the evidence. It is easier and cheaper to create it – and if possible to create not just the evidence but the spy himself.  We must therefore in the national interest choose a Jewish officer who might be open to suspicion through some weakness, and show he has passed important information to the Prussian embrassy in Paris.” (362) Behold a twenty-first century author putting his own words and thoughts into the mind of a nineteenth-century figure.

There are no smoking gaffes in the history recounted (that I caught, anyway), yet, sadly, the novel’s erudition is wasted, for its one-damned-thing-after-another comprehensiveness and its relentlessly ironical tone end up giving a thoroughly misguided and shallow understanding of what (unfortunately) is an important and profound thing:  Antisemitism.

The distinguished political sociologist André Siegfried used to say that while antipathy is helpful in analyzing a topic, sympathy is mandatory for understanding [cerner] it. Yet if that dictum worked for Siegfried in palpating the various forms of neo-monarchism in the west of France, it poses problems for historians of topics that elicit only antipathy.  How does the modern scholar understand Antisemitism?  Umberto Eco, old-fashioned anticlerical Italian liberal and incisive student of semiotics, does not trouble himself with striving for Verstehen (Max Weber’s “deep understanding”). Like Alexander Dumas or Eugen Weber, he has good fun at his characters’ expense. But thenWeber never focused an entire book on the Antisemites, while Dumas, in Joseph Balsamo, was writing a novel about a character (Cagliostro) who had his wonderful moments, too.  (Dumas indeed pops up in the novel as a fellow Garibaldian.)

Eco has his moments, as we saw, but the frisson of a night on Bald Mountain or his book’s occasionally effective illustrations (e.g., “Jesuits are Masons dressed up as women”, reads the caption to the clever drawing on p. 15) cannot replace understanding. Eco’s Simonini “is too cynical to believe any of the conspiracy theories, but it strikes him they are infinitely marketable…. Who was left? The Jews, for heaven’s sake!  Deep down, I thought it was only my grandfather who had been so obsessed, but after listening to Toussenel I realize there was an anti-Jewish market not just among all the descendants of Abbé Barruel (and there were quite a few of them), but also among revolutionaries, republicans and socialists.” (194)

The topic Eco has, in effect, taken on, in The Prague Cemetery, is this:  why did an Abbé Barruel, thirty years on, suddenly ‘realize’ that his earlier analysis of the harm done the world by Free Masonry was both wide and shallow the mark, and needed to be refocused on ‘the Jew’?  A century after Barruel’s conspiratorial ‘explanation’ of social evil was published, a new and grander conspiratorial ‘explanation’ (The Protocols…) replaced it to far, far greater popular penetration.  What, in the bimillenial history of anti-Judaism and Judeophobia, had changed such the Jews were obliged to carry this level of blame?  In a word, whence the new-fangled Antisemitismus?

This is an oft-addressed but extremely complex and difficult topic. While Eco is onto something to suggest that the broad popular plausibility of Antisemitic myths lies in the popular literature of an Alexandre Dumas or an Eugène Sue (among other secondary writers), that is only a start – and a familiar one.  How much can we say about contemporary political pathology by aluding to “The Simpsons” or “Harry Potter”? Here, the historian’s own attitude toward the depth of human belief is going to prove crucial in framing a plausible explanation. And in this regard, Eco comes seriously a cropper, for if much is a hoax and many of the actors are hucksters (or worse) in the two-century history of Antisemitism, stating this is hardly to speak the last or most important word.

At one point, Eco’s Simonini muses, “Perhaps I should have taken Gougenot [de Mousseaux]’s book more seriously…” (205)[1] At another, he concedes somewhat to his surprise that “Drumont and his coterie were less concerned about the originality of ideas than about their truth.” (349) And, finally, in a third time, Simonini is at a loss to explain why a hoax-artist like Leo Taxil – who would ‘convert’ to Roman Catholicism in order to show up what he took to be the absurd nonsense of popular religion – would yet not deal with Antisemitism.  (Indeed, Taxil stood strongly against Drumont.)

Had Eco himself taken such questions more seriously, he might have produced a character of the pathological profundity of SS-Obersturmbann-fuehrer Maximilian Aue in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones– a novel which, infinitely better than The Prague Cemetery, palpates the mystery of the evil at hand via artistic Verstehen, not merely intellectual analysis. Neal Ascherson is right to score Eco’s obsession with cupidity and gullibility for being “too comfortable,” and to suggest that the historian who would explain Antisemitism adequately needs to be able to explain the rise of Christianity. [2]

De Gaulle once referred to Raymond Aron as «ce personnage, journaliste au Collège de France et professeur au Figaro».  One might say of Umberto Eco that he is an érudit in his fiction and a novelist at VS.[3]

Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery, trans. Richard Dixon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) orig published as Il cimitero di Praga (Milan: Bompiani, 2010).

Steven Englund is currently writing a comparative study of Antisemitism in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and France, 1870-1920.

  1. Le Juif.  Le judaisme et la judaisation des peuples chrétiens (1869).  This 560 pp. study is a if not the, crucial moment in the transition from traditional Catholic Jew-hating to Catholic Antisemitism.  See the doctoral thesis by Emmanuel Kreis, Quis ut Deus?  Antijudéo-maçonnerie et occultisme en France sous la IIIe République (l’EPHE, 2011), forthcoming from Cerf publishers.
  2. “The Most Insidious Forgery,” The New York Review of Books, 24 November 2011, 29-31.
  3. Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici (often abbreviated as VS), the influential semiotics journal founded by Eco in 1971, which has played a central role in bringing together international scholars of many fields all of whom study signs and signification.
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