Umberto Eco's Book 'The Prague Cemetery' Explores A Deadly Hoax

Solving An old Mystery: Eco invents a villain for a devilish hoax. Eric Fougere / Corbis (left)

“Beware of faking,” Umberto Eco warned in his 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, “people will believe you.”

Unless he forgot his own advice, Eco should have expected the storm of controversy surrounding the release of his new novel, The Prague Cemetery. After all, the central character offers up a 444-page anti-Semitic variety show, ranting against “the Jew” in every dark alleyway of 19th-century Europe. Unsurprisingly, the Chief Rabbi of Rome had a few questions for Eco. So did the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, whose scathing review went so far as to say readers may be persuaded by the book’s anti-Jewish vitriol.

Thinking this book isn’t the perfect holiday gift? Not so fast.

Because The Prague Cemetery uses its despicable cast of forgers, scavengers, and anti-Semites to help Eco chase down the origin of the deadliest hoax in modern history. The document, known as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” surfaced in Russia in 1905 and was quickly proven a blatant forgery. But it didn’t matter. Henry Ford funded the printing of 500,000 copies in the U.S. By 1936, Adolf Hitler called the Protocols his “warrant for genocide.”

But if the “Protocols” was a historical forgery, who wrote it?

Enter Eco’s latest malevolent creation, Captain Simone Simonini: a middle-aged 19th-century forger, raging anti-Semite, and amateur chef. But his most expert dish is hate. And above all, Simonini hates Jews. He dreams about them, theorizes about them, talks about them with every fellow ragtag conman he encounters. Simonini is a small-time forger who wants to hit it big. What conspiracy could unite the rising Marxists looking for a capitalist target, the Russian occultists looking for a mystical dark force, the French shopkeeper mired in debt, and even young priests guarding Christian morals? Ah, the Jew.

But the most interesting part of The Prague Cemetery is not why one lunatic wrote the Protocols. It’s why a whole continent believed him. This is the book’s richest and most relevant theme. For Eco, the strange truth behind Europe’s credulity is not intellectual, but sensual. This is the erotic, intimate appeal of anti-Semitism that Eco portrays. The sumptuous appeal of its lies, the grandeur of its scope doesn’t need to make sense. Like all the wine guzzled in dark bars throughout this novel, anti-Semitism feels nourishing, but it is a sad, corrosive illusion. And like alcohol, the anti-Semite’s resistance builds. The theories must be intensified, generation to generation, to catch the same buzz.

In his introduction, Eco says the novel may appeal even to readers “who know nothing about 19th-century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously.” That potshot against Brown’s readers is unfair. Truth is, they demand a narrative with greater cohesion and swifter pace than is delivered here. Eco could have borrowed a trick or two from his evil chef, Simonini. You want us to keep reading? Then make it taste so good we can’t stop.

Which is a shame because for all its difficulties, The Prague Cemetery is an important novel. The book’s implicit question is terrifying: are the same social frustrations at work today to revive “The Protocols’” anti-Semitism? Just like the start of the last century, Europeans are mired in debt, Russians are nostalgic for their former greatness, the Church is losing ground, and Arab nations are struggling to craft a coherent picture of their future. Wouldn’t a single, easy target once again be the refreshing cool glass of water to all these nationalities stumbling through a desert of self-doubt?

Egypt has answered the question. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was aired as a TV miniseries watched by millions, accompanied by a new Arabic translation of the text. The foreword began, “Hitler was not the first world leader who tried to defend himself against the Jewish conspiracy.”

Simonini is fictional, but the relentless creativity of his hatred is not. He will scavenge any book in any language for another puzzle piece. So the question arises: Will The Prague Cemetery’s own book-length recitation of age-old lies and stereotypes about Jews provide ready-made anti-Semites with a larger arsenal of imagery and rumor? With a million copies already sold, some have assuredly fallen into the wrong hands. Does Eco stay up at night wondering if any of those wrong hands belong to a future Simonini?

He should. We all should. And maybe that’s the queasy feeling Eco wants us to have.

Levin is the author of The Last Ember.