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The Most Insidious Forgery

The Prague Cemetery

by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 444 pp., $27.00
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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 newspaper reports from which he quotes. Only the central figure has been invented. Captain Simonini is the squalid, sometimes tormented actor whose corrupt hackwork as a writer is made to link up all the conspiracy manias of the century—from the fear of the Carbonari in post-Napoleonic Italy through to the anti-Semitic propaganda of twentieth-century France—into a single developing process.

Eco adds in this note that he has tried to make Simonini “the most cynical and disagreeable [character] in all the history of literature.” A tall order. But it would be hard to conjure up a fictional villain who was at the same time so immensely learned, so greedy for haute cuisine, and so brutally callous. Simonini is propelled by hatred. He hates Jews above all. But he also hates Germans (“the lowest conceivable level of humanity…[who] mistake uncertainty for depth”), the French (“lazy, swindling,…proud…vicious…and mean”), Italians (he is a Piedmontese, like Eco himself, with the proverbial contempt for everyone else on the peninsula), priests (“idle and…as dangerous as thieves and vagrants”), Jesuits, and Freemasons. And, with a special virulence, he hates women. Misogyny and the terror of sexual contact is another recurrent Eco element: The Name of the Rose (1980), Eco’s first and still finest novel, is crowded with monks horrified and yet fascinated by the female body.

Simonini is born in 1830 in Turin, capital of Piedmont in a disunited Italy. His mother is French, his father an officer in the Savoy army. The mother dies when he is still a child: “I hated my mother who had gone without telling me, I hated my father who had done nothing to stop her….” In 1848 his father leaves home to fight for Italian unity and the principles of the Great Revolution, and dies defending Rome against the French. The boy is brought up by his grandfather, a fanatical old reactionary who hides Jesuit refugees when the order is suppressed. He teaches his grandson that the sinful Revolution of 1789 in France was planned by the Templars, assisted by English Freemasons and by Bavarian Illuminati who designed the Enlightenment, and the Jacobins. But behind them all were—and are—the Jews.

The grandfather writes a letter to Abbé Barruel, a Catholic pamphleteer, explaining that “the Hebrew sect” is lavishing its gold to support all the other sectarians as “a single faction seeking to destroy the name of Christ wherever possible” in order to become rulers of the world. This letter, Eco assures us, is historical and exists as one of the very first texts of “modern” anti-Semitism.

Young Simonini grows up hating the local Jews but less impressed by his grandfather’s theory of Semitic world conquest. Then he reads the Dumas novel Joseph Balsamo, in which a huge and secret conclave of Freemasons assembles on a German mountain to plan the future French Revolution, to “destroy the two great enemies of humanity, the throne and the altar.” It dawns on him that this basic scenario has immense, enduring power in endless variations.

I said to myself…let us imagine conspirators who come from every part of the world and represent the tentacles of their sect spread throughout every country…. Let us get one of them to pronounce a discourse that clearly sets out the plan, and the intention to conquer the world…

The Jesuits, the Jews, the Masons, the Illuminati, the Carbonari, the Throne in league with the priesthood…everyone who refuses to blame himself for his failure will find someone else to blame for his ruin.

Simonini is too cynical to believe any of the conspiracy theories. But it strikes him that they are infinitely marketable. The trick is not to confect anything original: “If I wanted to sell the story of a conspiracy, I didn’t have to offer the buyer anything original, but simply something he already knew or could have found out more easily in other ways.” This discovery will shape his future life.

As a young lawyer, Simonini is already specializing in forging wills. This comes to the notice of the Turin political police, who suggest that he can avoid prison if he cooperates. To impress his new masters, he fabricates a version of Dumas’s secret meeting, a supposed “report” that moves the gathering from Germany to the old Jewish cemetery in Prague and substitutes the Jesuits for the Masons. This time, the world conspiracy assembled by the Society of Jesus will lure Piedmont into a war, which will end with Italy united under the rule of the Pope and Piedmont occupied by the French armies of Napoleon III.

The report is found useful. As his next task, Simonini is instructed to join the revolutionary conspiracy of the Carbonari as a double agent and provocateur. After getting his “comrades” arrested by setting up an armed plot, he is sent to Sicily to spy on Garibaldi and his campaign to liberate and unite Italy, and to find and destroy certain account books. These would prove that Garibaldi had been receiving cash subsidies from the House of Savoy, the royal family of Piedmont, so Simonini arranges for a bomb to be smuggled on board a steamer carrying the books out of Sicily—the first of many murders, on contract or purely personal, that he commits with impunity.

After the bombing, the Captain’s masters hastily transfer him to Paris and advise him to stay lost. This allows him the leisure to study the street scenes of the Second Empire city (recalled with loving detail by Eco) and to indulge his passion for food. Here he is soon picked up as a useful informer by the political division of the Sûreté, operating to penetrate circles of clandestine opposition to Louis-Napoleon’s dictatorship. And here, too, Umberto Eco’s story line goes into elegant but often bewildering contortions.

In the early chapters, Eco plants his readers in the Paris of the 1880s—in other words, after the main action in the rest of the story. Simonini is looking back, seeking to make sense of what he has been doing, and in the dilapidated restaurant Chez Magny he has been talking to scientists taking a lunch break from their institutes. One group of doctors is studying the experiments of Jean-Martin Charcot, founder of modern neurology; they debate with Simonini the respective value of hypnosis or magnetism for treating “hysteria” and the enigma of “personality variation”: people who think they are one person one day and someone else the next. At another table, alone, sits a melancholy Austrian named—if Simonini can recall it—something like “Doctor Froïde.” Overcoming his distaste for Jews, the Captain draws him out to expound his theories of repressed memory following a traumatic experience, of “talking cures” and the therapeutic recall of dreams.

All this throws a dim, gaslight illumination on what is to follow in the novel—and on what has already happened to Simonini in Paris some twenty years before his neurology lessons over Chez Magny’s grubby tables. The zigzag, backstitched structure of Eco’s story contains three overlapping narratives, each printed in its own typeface. One is authorial—Eco recounts some of the adventures of Simonini. The other two take the form of diaries. The Captain, influenced by “Dr Froïde,” starts to examine his own daily life and the blanks in his memories of the past. Meanwhile, an “Abbé Dalla Piccola” begins a simultaneous diary (in sans serif).

Whether the Abbé really exists, or is no more than the voice of Simonini’s repressed and guilt-ridden conscience, is a riddle left for the reader to decrypt. He appears as a shadowy clerical figure who seems to live just down the corridor from Simonini’s Paris apartment, at times materializing in Simonini’s room to add his own entries to his neighbor’s diary, at times even waking in his bed. Both diarists come to suspect that they may be the same person, but have no common memory to prove it (see the “personality variation” gossip at Chez Magny).

In one typeface or another, the central story winds on. Arriving in France, Simonini has taken up his old profession of forging wills—he’s a maestro at imitating handwritings—and selling petty information to the police. Soon his Sûreté controller asks him to infiltrate the circle of Maurice Joly, author of a fantasy set in Hell that implies that Louis-Napoleon is preparing to destroy civil liberties and restore the Bonapartist dictatorship. He does so, noticing that Joly has lifted much of his language from Eugène Sue’s old novel Les Mystères du peuple, which imagined a Jesuit world conspiracy against republican freedoms. Simonini follows this by penetrating a group of Italian revolutionaries and—as he had done with the Carbonari in Turin—provoking them into plotting violence. All are arrested and packed off to rot on Devil’s Island.

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