Anti-Semitism has existed for a very long time and the first documented pogroms against Jews date back to the turn of the first millennium. As a belief system, however, anti-Semitism is relatively recent, going back to the second half of the nineteenth century. The story of how this belief system came to be written and of its weak and ludicrous foundations is told by Umberto Eco’s latest historical novel entitled The Prague Cemetery.
The book tells the story of one of the many scoundrels of that time who made their living through forgery, producing documents to influence public opinion or for the purpose of undermining political rivals. The nineteenth century was the time of the print revolution, the gradual consolidation of the bourgeois society and of republican uprisings. In earlier times, despotic regimes had only to kill their opponents in order to get rid of them. But as literacy and publicity began to spread, with journals and pamphlets sprouting everywhere, the various monarchic and imperial rulers, but also autocratic institutions like the Catholic Church, were suddenly compelled to justify their actions—and what better way to do that than by producing written documentation that ‘proved’ that those opposing them were liars, traitors, greedy non-believers or simply diabolical?
It was a good time for forgers like Simone Simonini, the protagonist of The Prague Cemetery. He did his job well. Not only did he have a brilliant overview of the esoteric literature of the time from which he copied and pasted at will, but he was also very good at faking signatures and writing styles. Accordingly, he was in demand and often used by the Italian, French, Prussian and Russian secret services as well as by the Catholic Church—against: Garibaldi, the Paris Commune, the Freemasons, Dreyfus, and, of course, the Jews, who came in handy as the ideal scapegoat for practically everyone, including the socialists. As one of Simonini’s clients, the head of the secret service in imperial Russia, Pyotr Rachkovsky, put it,
“We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal.” (p.342)
As Simonini has to work for different clients, and often for opposing factions, he invents a second persona for himself to make his life easier—a priest by the name of Dalla Piacola. In fact, this is another forger, a competitor so-to-speak, and one of several people Simonini eventually kills and buries in his basement. Everything works fine for a while, but as he ages, Simonini begins to lose the overview and also his memory, and suddenly he realizes he does not know who he is. That is good for us readers, because that’s what gets him to begin writing a diary, and it is through this diary that we learn his story.
It is the story of many villains—indeed what puts this book in a genre of its own is that it has only villains. Moreover, all of them existed, except the protagonist, but even Simonini, Eco concludes in the epilogue, “although in effect a collage, a character to whom events have been attributed that were actually done by others, did in some sense exist. Indeed, to be frank, he is still among us.” (p.439).
Umberto Eco’s book has been widely acknowledged for its literary quality but also greeted with some apprehension. Indicative of the prevailing sentiment is a comment by Cynthia Ozick, reproduced on the back cover, who writes that the novel, whilst “magnificently sly,” should not fall in the wrong hands. This is because, in order to tell its story, it reproduces anti-Semitic legends like those told in ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’
Surely, however, the villains of today do not need to rely on Eco’s novel in order to get hold of vile documents, like they didn’t back in the nineteenth century. Worse comes to worse, they will invent them, like they did then. After all, fiction is not just produced by good guys—that is ultimately also Eco’s message.
I agree with Rebecca Goldstein writing for The New York Times that “Eco is to be applauded for bringing this stranger-than-fiction truth vividly to life.” That is moreover a good sign. There is no better way to undermine conspiracy theories and strange belief systems than by throwing light on their shadows. That does not always work immediately; but in the long run, it does.