Finishing The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco was not nearly as satisfying as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’sPendulum. I don’t mean to say that it wasn’t good. It was fantastic! But the end result of finishing the book was gaining a keener understanding of Antisemitism in the 19th century, specifically in Italy and France.
Eco intentionally wrote into the story a truly despicable protagonist. Captain Simonini engages in all kinds of espionage, dealing with terrorists and pedophile priests, not unlike the intelligence services continue to do today. The main difference seems to be that organized religion no longer has the sting it once did. The pope is no longer a temporal figure, but a spiritual one, and has no sway in political matters like predecessors did in the medieval period. So maybe an equivalent story today would involve the ubiquitous corporate presence of a popular brand, instigating a civil war in a developing nation because the cost of bananas went from fives cents to six cents apiece? Who knows…
The most disturbing aspect of the book, which is billed as a “thriller,” is that it is told from the first person point of view of Simonini (as well as a morally conflicted split persona and an unnamed narrator). The false narrative of anti-Semitism, the descriptions of the Jews from the mouths of racist newspaper editors, the internal investigations of the state into the finances of citizens, culminates into a believable lie. That the story is a cohesive conspiracy theory, there is a degree of credibility throughout, despite the fact that this story is actually a satire and deconstruction of the paranoia that gripped Europe at the time. Traditional ideas like the Divine Right of Kings and the supremacy of the Catholic Church were eroding exponentially, and in the vacuum a new middle class was rising to take back control of the state. In an effort to foil this new class and restore faith in the despotic European nations, anti-Semitism is leveraged to turn a sequestered community into the scapegoat for all of Europe’s woes.
The crux of the book is the development of The Protocols of TheElders of Zion, a supposed recording of the minutes of a Jewish council gathered in a cemetery at the turn of the 19th century, where leaders representing the twelve tribes of Israel conspire to corrupt gentiles through entertainment and proliferation of liberalism. Even though the document itself was debunked a century ago by a British newspaper, pointing out that several sections were extensively (and poorly) plagiarized from an existing polemical work pointing out the injustices of Napoleon the III (I think it was Napoleon the III…), it became the source text for the Nazi Regime and a tool for implementing what would be known as the “Final Solution,” that is the extermination of the Jews in Europe.
It sounds so fantastic that it can’t be true, but all the characters in the story except for Simonini are real people. Eco is just weaving together a plausible explanation for the underlying force that moved the racial tensions forward. The book is an application of Eco’s philosophy of creating enemies and the paradoxical relationship between intangible words and demonstrable change in the hearts and minds of people. And this is why the work is so persuasive.