Skulking in the Sewers
Umberto Eco is the original intellectual historical-thriller writer, but is he a real novelist? In 1980 his first novel, The Name of the Rose, a mystery set in a medieval monastery, became an unlikely international best-seller. He had turned his hand to fiction in middle age, after establishing himself as a leading academic in the all-encompassing field of semiotics. Eco has published a number of novels since then, which have repeatedly returned to the best-seller charts, despite—or because of—being laden with his polymath erudition. But some critics have never quite taken his novels seriously, or else have doubted that Eco was serious about being a novelist. Anthony Burgess took this typically respectful but skeptical line in a review of Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, for the New York Times Book Review in 1989: “For while it is not a novel in a strict sense of the word, it is a truly formidable gathering of information delivered playfully by a master manipulating his own invention—in effect, a long, erudite joke.”
Eco’s latest novel should put to rest any remaining doubts about his storytelling ability. It’s a delightfully loose performance of an author fully in command of his material (not vice versa), yet wearing his learning lightly, believe it or not. The Prague Cemetery is an entertaining and surprisingly fast-moving plunge through the undercurrents of 19th-century conspiracy theories, culminating in the most pernicious one of all, the anti-Semitic fabrication known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And it is a persuasive imitation of a 19th-century adventure novel, in the French tradition of Alexandre Dumas or Eugène Sue—both of whom, Eco maintains, were plagiarized by the creators of the Protocols and their various forerunners. Eco’s ingenious conceit is to populate his novel with the real-life characters who produced the ideological tracts and dime novels that incited the fashionable hatreds and paranoid fantasies of the era: anti-Freemasonry, anti-Jesuitism, and, of course, anti-Semitism. This rogues’ gallery of charlatans and fanatics, hack writers, propagandists, revolutionaries and spies, comes to life with infernal energy—all of them scheming, blustering and constantly double-crossing each other in competition for the patronage of the secret services of various European powers, which utilize the imagined conspiracies for their own political intrigues.
The protagonist of The Prague Cemetery, Captain Simone Simonini, is a villain par excellence, the type who wears a false beard and carries a swordstick, seething with hatred, yet shrewd in pursuit of self-interest. He makes his living as a notary forging legal documents, and develops a lucrative sideline as an informant for the secret services, first in his native Piedmont, and then in Parisian exile. We encounter him in his late sixties, in 1897, just as he has taken up writing a diary at a moment of crisis, suffering from partial amnesia and a possible split personality. A Jesuit priest, the Abbé Dalla Piccola, seems to inhabit a pied-à-terre connected by a secret corridor to Simonini’s apartment and writes his own running commentary in Simonini’s diary while the latter is sleeping. Each wonders whether they might be the same man.
Simonini has undertaken the diary as an attempt at self-therapy, after making the acquaintance of the first Jew he has ever known: one “Doktor Froïde,” a young, cocaine-addicted apprentice to the famous French psychiatrist Charcot. Following Froïde’s ideas, Simonini is “writing down my past as I gradually bring it back to mind, including the most insignificant details, until (what did Froïde say?) the traumatizing element reemerges.” And Dalla Piccola seems to serve as a sort of superego, badgering Simonini when he becomes reluctant to remember certain details.
This situation allows Eco to develop three narrative strands. There are Simonini’s diary and Dalla Piccola’s interpolations, both in the first person, and a third-person account by a “Narrator” purporting to summarize their less coherent jottings as he reads over their shoulders. Each narrative is presented in a different font (the Narrator’s is rendered in a characteristic 19th-century typeface) and enhanced with a fine selection of period illustrations—most of which are from Eco’s personal collection—in a wild variety of styles. These details simulate the experience of reading a 19th-century potboiler; and at the same time, the proliferation of typefaces and engraving styles create the impression of a blatant literary forgery, stitched together from a heap of pages and plates torn from forgotten novels.
Simonini begins his attempt at reconstructing his personality by taking stock of his passions. He knows that his only love is for fine food, which he indulges at all the best restaurants of Paris, when in funds. But his hatreds evidently are legion. He spews out his loathing in bilious masses of stereotypes, hilariously over-the-top riffs, first railing against the Jews, then the Germans, the French, the Italians, then priests, Jesuits, Masons, and finally, women. He concludes with an apt corruption of Descartes’ proposition: “What does the philosopher say? Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am.”
Simonini remembers that he was first schooled in anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic ideas (as Eco shows, the two were often linked in the conspiratorial imagination) by his grandfather, who raised him in Turin while his father was away conspiring for Italian unity. He also recalls another potent influence in his youth, a cache of his father’s French novels: “In the attic I found a case of books that my father had evidently kept out of my grandfather’s sight, and (seeking likewise to conceal this solitary vice from my grandfather) I spent whole afternoons until my eyes were worn out on The Mysteries of Paris, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo…”
He is most impressed by Dumas’s Joseph Balsamo, in which the 18th-century adventurer Cagliostro appears as the grandmaster of a Masonic conspiracy for world domination, unfolding his plans in a meeting on Thunder Mountain, near the Rhine. Simonini recalls being struck by this melodramatic mise-en-scène: “From the picture created by Dumas (in reverence to that great writer), I wondered whether the bard had not discovered, in describing a single conspiracy, the Universal Form of every possible conspiracy.” Simonini then had this further insight:
Let us forget Thunder Mountain, the left bank of the Rhine and those events, 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 assemble them in a forest clearing, a cave, a castle, a cemetery or a crypt, provided it is reasonably dark. Let us get one of them to pronounce a discourse that clearly sets out the plan, and the intention to conquer the world…I have known many people who feared the conspiracy of some hidden enemy…This led me to think, even then, that 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.
The young Simonini goes to work for a notary who teaches him the art of forgery, and is then recruited by the secret service of Piedmont to betray a group of his friends who are members of the Carbonari, the revolutionary secret society. Having accomplished this task without scruples, he is dispatched to spy on Garibadi’s expedition to Sicily in 1860, and meets Dumas himself, sailing down on his yacht to bring arms and money to Garibaldi.
Following these Italian adventures, Simonini moves to Paris with a letter of introduction to the French secret service. There he thrives under the supremely cynical regime of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, and takes a hidden hand in many of the outstanding events of the era. He acts as a double agent during the Franco-Prussian War, infiltrates the Paris Commune and forges the memorandum at the center of the Dreyfus Affair, falsely implicating a Jewish army officer as a German spy.
Over the decades, Simonini constantly refines, recycles and resells to various patrons a false document which he first created in Turin, combining the twin novelistic influences of Dumas and Sue, while changing the plotters from Masons to Jesuits, and the setting to the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. His secret service handler in Piedmont wasn’t fooled by the forgery, but saw its potential: “Even if this document is all your own handiwork, it suits me and my superiors to present it to the government as genuine,” and “instill in our sovereign feelings of suspicion and grievance against the pope.” The other spymasters Simonini comes to work for all take a similar view. His lurid report is obviously fake, but can be used to manipulate the less astute—the rulers or the masses. Later, on assignment for the Jesuits, he replaces the personnel again, and finds the magic formula: now a cabal of rabbis comes together in the cemetery to plot Jewish control of the globe.
In the course of his career Simonini encounters others engaged in similar enterprises; he borrows their ideas, or they steal his, until it seems that “the old story of the Prague cemetery had become a commonplace almost worthy of a novel.” Finally he is recruited by czarist Russia’s secret service, the Okhrana, to update his scenario with new material, and this ultimate revision becomes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. At the end of his career, Simonini feels the melancholy pride of a retired thriller writer: “I was a good narrator. I should have been an artist: From a few details I created a magical place, the sinister moonlit center of the universal conspiracy. Why did I let it slip out of my hands? I could have done so much else with it.”
Eco clearly is fascinated by this material: just like Simonini, he has returned to it over and over throughout his career. He laid out all of the historical background and literary antecedents in “Fictional Protocols,” one of the lectures collected in his critical volume Six Walks in the Fictional Woods; there, he claims that “the connections with Dumas and Sue…were my own discovery.” The same information can be found in Chapters 90 to 96 of Foucault’s Pendulum, and in Chapter 97 there is even a sketch of a “dime novel” in the style of a 19th century potboiler to be based on this theme. But Burgess was right about Foucault’s Pendulum: the ponderous weight of enormous quantities of unassimilated learning about the history of conspiracy theory, from the Knights Templar to the Protocols, makes the book difficult to enjoy as a novel, though
interesting as a compendium of odd occultist lore. (Burgess was surely wrong, though, to extend this critique to The Name of the Rose, in which Eco succeeded at incorporating his deep knowledge of medieval history and philosophy into a compelling detective story. And one might also note that the heated debates of the monks over bizarre but dangerous heresies find an echo in the conspiracies both real and imagined of the 19th century.)
In The Prague Cemetery, Eco has found a way to animate the secret history of the Protocols, by expertly recreating the world of the 19th-century novel. The setting is an important part of this, with resonances of the great novels of Paris right from the first chapter, which begins with a minute description of Simonini’s disreputable Left Bank neighborhood, worthy of Balzac. There are many other fine vignettes of the down-and-out Parisian milieu, from the cheap restaurants Simonini reluctantly frequents when short of money (“Dysentery guaranteed, price affordable”), to the rag-and-bone men and the collectors of cigar stubs he observes with something akin to compassion; or “the suiveurs, middle-aged men who conceal their gaze behind green-tinted glasses” as they follow factory girls through the passages, unaware that they themselves are being followed by Simonini, with a view to blackmail. In keeping with the influence of Dumas and Sue, there are recurring subterranean scenes, in the fetid sewers that prove handy for disposing of corpses; and “beneath the network of sewers, stretching as far as its boundaries and beyond, is a maze of limestone and chalk caves and ancient catacombs,” which Simonini skulks through during the days of the Commune. It is then, during the mass starvation of the siege of Paris, that he has one of his most memorable gastronomic experiences:
All the exotic animals in the Jardin des Plantes were killed for meat, and on Christmas night, for those with money to spend, a sumptuous meal was on offer at Voisin, with elephant consommé, roast camel à l’anglaise, jugged kangaroo, bear chops au sauce poivrade, antelope terrine with truffles and cat garnished with baby mice…The camel was acceptable, and not too bad-tasting…
The novel’s success also has much to do with Eco’s choice of protagonist: in a note to the reader, he says he set out to make the character of Simonini “the most cynical and disagreeable in all the history of literature,” and whether or not he succeeded in that high ambition, the notary’s evildoing has an engagingly brisk pace. Another notable aspect of this character is that he is not an intellectual, unlike the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum, whose enthusiasm for knowledge seems to encourage the author’s indiscriminate display of his own erudition. Simonini is clever enough, but his reading is limited to the novels, tracts and newspaper clippings from which he cobbles together his crude forgeries. His intellectual limitations help keep the plot tightly focused, and this dissociation of author and protagonist creates the distance needed to introduce the element of irony, which Eco handles with a sure touch in treating a subject that demands it.
Of course, some readers will fail to appreciate Eco’s use of irony and will find his themes distasteful. The official newspaper of the Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano, launched a polemic against the novel when it was published in Italy in 2010, complaining that its heavy repetition of anti-Semitic tropes “tainted” and could even convince the reader. But that organ is an old foe of Eco’s (back in 1989 Burgess quoted it calling him “a fabulatory pest who deforms, desecrates and offends”) and probably did not care for his portrayal of scheming Jesuits. The Prague Cemetery does require its readers to have a sense of humor, and for those who do, its lesson is clear. The Protocols were an absurd concoction of plagiarized material, a self-contradictory fiction crudely pasted together from other fictions, and foisted upon a credulous public by secret services with their own cynical agendas. That anyone took them seriously, that they inspired Hitler and his ilk, is a truth far stranger than the fictions that the forgery was based on; but as Simonini understands to his profit, most people are predisposed to believe uncritically in stories that cater to their prejudices. By entertaining us with the connivings and ravings of the forgers, spies and madmen behind the Protocols, Eco shows that the deadliest consequences can come of the most ridiculous origins; history repeats itself, first as farce, then as tragedy, to reverse the dictum of Karl Marx, another notorious conspirator of the age. As Eco taught in The Name of the Rose, laughter is the weapon most feared by tyranny. Laughing at the origins of the Protocols might well be the best way to disarm those deluded fanatics who still believe in such dime-novel fantasies.
Joshua Lustig is a Senior Editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York, and a Contributing Editor at Open Letters Monthly.