The Most Insidious Forgery

The Prague Cemetery

by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 444 pp., $27.00
Umberto Eco; drawing by Tullio Pericoli

The Paris Freemasons had sided with the Commune, and the Communards had shot an archbishop. The Jews had to be involved in some way. They killed children, so killing archbishops was hardly a problem. One day in 1876, while Simonini was pondering this question, he heard the bell downstairs. At the door was an elderly man in a cassock. He thought at first it was the usual satanist priest come to sell consecrated hosts, but then….

That passage, picked almost at random halfway through the book, indicates that The Prague Cemetery is vintage Eco. Here once more, rolling toward us out of history like a toxic mist, are the paranoia and credulity that still asphyxiate the human race. Here are the occult conspiracies imagined to be plotting world domination, the obscure books terrifying the ignorant with their “half-read wisdom of daemonic images,” the priesthoods urging sadistic vengeance on underground cults that subvert their authority. And here, once again, is Umberto Eco’s fascination with deception, hoaxing, faking, and forgery.

This is a novel about the most notorious and insidious forgery of modern times, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Put together in tsarist Russia in the early twentieth century and soon exposed as a clumsy police fraud, The Protocols retain an apparently inextinguishable following among people convinced that a Jewish plot for world domination is still creeping toward fulfillment. I last saw a copy in what is now Namibia, in an Afrikaans translation being used as election propaganda by a small white extremist party. (A supplement pointed out that the first letters in the names of President Jimmy Carter’s advisers corresponded to those of Satan’s archangels.)

Eco, the star bookworm of our times, has used his genius for excavating libraries to construct a semifictional narrative of how The Protocols might have evolved. It’s a question that has intrigued him for a long time, and this is not the first time that he has played with it. Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) contains a section naming the same literary sources, the same writers, and some of the same police manipulators and provocateurs (all of them genuine and historical) who appear as characters in The Prague Cemetery. And the Prague cemetery itself, presented as the scene for a whole succession of fantasies about secret minorities gathering by night to plot their route to global dominion, was already described in Foucault’s Pendulum.

Eco suggests that The Protocols evolved from the mass of half-baked conspiracy literature that accumulated in nineteenth-century Europe. As he proudly points out in an opening “Dear Reader” note (prefacing the proof copy and included in an abbreviated form as an appendix in the bound copy), this is “a story in which all the characters except one—the main character—really existed.” And so, as far as I can tell, did all the leaflets and books and…

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