Umberto Eco’s Cemetery of Prague creates controversy


The publication of Umberto Eco’s latest novel (in Italian), Il cimitero di Praga(The Cemetery of Prague), has created no small amount of controversy in Italy, thanks largely to very public criticisms voiced by the Vatican backed Osservatore Romano newspaper, and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni .

Eco, who made his literary debut 30 years ago with In the Name of the Rose, takes on freemasonry, conspiracy theories, forgery and the unification of Italy amongst other things in this latest novel, but at its core is anti-semitism and perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most pernicious – forgery in the world: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The main character of Eco’s novel, the fictitious* Simone Simonini, whom he describes as ‘the most hateful man in the world’, is a master forger in the employ of various secret services. Fuelled by anti-semitism, he concocts the ultimate conspiracy theory, where a mythic meeting of the elders of Zion takes place in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, detailing their nefarious plan to rule the world.

It’s not the first time that Eco has examined conspiracy theories, or indeed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (for example, they play a significant role in Foucault’s Pendulum, but this time the focus in particular on the most famous anti-semitic conspiracy theory, and his choice of a convinced anti-semitic protagonist has rasied objections.

Professor Lucetta Scaraffia, of Rome’s La Sapienza University, wrote a cutting review, entitled Umberto Eco Voyeur del Male in l’Osservatore Romano. Dispensing briefly with a literary criticism (the novel is, apparently , ‘boring, faragginous, and difficult to read’), Scaraffia focusses more, though, on a moral question:

It can’t be denied, though, that the continous description of Jewish villainy brings about a whiff of ambiguity, certainly not intended by Eco but permeating every page of the book. Forced to read disgusting things about the Jews, the reader remains tainted by this antisemitic nonsense, and it’s even possible that someone may think that maybe there’s some truth if all, really all, the characters seem certain of these crimes.”[1]

In similar comments, made to the left-leaning Espresso magazine, during a dialogue with Eco, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni objected:

“At the end the reader asks: ma these Jews, do they or don’t they want to overthrow society and rule the world? The problem is that we’re not dealing with a scientific book that analyses and explains certain phenomena. ‘Il Cimetero di Praga‘ is a novel, And furthermore it has a winning plot, the ends up convincing”[2]

The criticisms are interesting, as they touch upon two themes that are particularly current in criticism these days – usually applied to less sensitive topics than antisemitism: how to deal with the boundaries between the real and the fictional, and the need or otherwise to empathise with a novel’s characters.

If sales figures for the book are anything to go by, it would seem that the Osservatore Romano‘s worries about the novel are not shared by Italy’s reading public – the book has already sold over 230,000 copies and entered into a second print run (It’s worth pointing out, as well, that the reviews of the novel have for the most part been very positive).

We’ll leave the last word to Eco himself, from the same dialogue with Di Segni:

“I wrote a novel, exactly. It’s a novel, which rather than an essay, doesn’t come to conclusions, putting together the contradictions. Just as I put on stage the two aspects of the Risorgimento, the anti-garibaldini and the enthusiasts, I did with the birth and development of antisemitism. From Barruel onwards hundreds of books and magazines with antisemitic stereotypes have been published. I’m interested in recounting how through the accumulation of these stereotypes the ‘Protocols’ were constructed. [..] My intention was to give the reader a punch in the stomach.
[...]

Where, according to the Rabbi it becomes dangerous, I think it should be clear in the narrative how every stereotype used first against the jesuits, then against Napoleon III, then against the Masons, could then be used against the Jews. It’s always the same framework, only the target changes.” [3]

*It’s worth pointing out that Simonini is a fictitious character, given that the novel is populated by plenty of real historical characters

[1] From Kolot.it
Non si può negare, invece, che le continue descrizioni della perfidia degli ebrei facciano nascere un sospetto di ambiguità, certo non voluta da Eco ma aleggiante in tutte le pagine del libro. A forza di leggere cose disgustose sugli ebrei, il lettore rimane come sporcato da questo vaneggiare antisemita, ed è perfino possibile che qualcuno pensi che forse c’è qualcosa di vero se tutti, proprio tutti, i personaggi paiono certi di queste nefandezze.
[2] From l’Espresso
Alla fine il lettore si chiede: ma questi ebrei, vogliono o non vogliono scardinare la società e governare il mondo? Il problema è che non si tratta di un libro scientifico che analizza e spiega i fenomeni. “Il Cimitero di Praga” è un romanzo. E in più ha una trama avvincente, che finisce per convincere”.
[3] From l’Espresso
Ho scritto un romanzo, appunto. E un romanzo, a differenza di un saggio, non porta a delle conclusioni, mette in scena le contraddizioni. Così come ho messo in scena i due aspetti del Risorgimento, gli antigaribaldini e gli entusiasti, l’ho fatto anche con la nascita e lo sviluppo dell’antisemitismo. Da Barruel in avanti escono a centinaia libri e riviste pieni di stereotipi antisemiti. A me interessava raccontare come attraverso l’accumulazione di questi stereotipi fossero costruiti i “Protocolli”. [...]Sono cosciente delle ambiguità che possono nascere. Ma la mia intenzione era quella di dare un pugno nello stomaco del lettore
[...]

“Il romanzo è stato scritto per raccontare come sono stati costruiti i “Protocolli”. E là dove secondo il rabbino diventa pericoloso, secondo me dovrebbe essere narrativamente chiaro come ogni stereotipo usato prima contro i gesuiti, poi contro Napoleone III, poi contro i massoni, può essere anche utilizzato contro gli ebrei. È sempre la stessa montatura, cambia solo l’oggetto

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