A conversation with Umberto Eco, whose new novel imagines one of the most anti-Semitic characters in fiction
Shorn of his black beard, and having laid his black fedora on the table, the novelist Umberto Eco still carries himself like the heir to a rabbinical dynasty, alternating passages of sly conversation with careful, learned explication and Talmudic pilpul. A creator of characters and stories so original and compelling that they appeal at once to academics and to a global audience of millions of weary Kindle-toting travelers, he takes equal delight in the sleights of hand that make his novels such fun to read and in the scholarly literature that frequently inspires his intricate and fiendishly clever plots.
To say that Eco is as much a historian of ideas as a novelist isn’t a cute way of denigrating the literary quality of his novels, which sometimes sparkle with genius. Rather, it is a way of underlining the scholarly impulse that so frequently animates his compulsive need to entertain. The Name of the Rose was one of the better mysteries of the past 50 years, but it could also profitably be used—and has been used—as a textbook on the scholastic method and medieval hermeneutics. Conversely, the clever meta-fictional devices that Eco enjoys are married to a 19th-century novelist’s open delight in grand flourishes—poisoned books, exploding sewers, and other comic-book-like narrative devices that return the often-tiresome suspension of disbelief fiction requires to the realm of pure childhood pleasure.
Nowhere are Eco’s deep scholarly seriousness and his childlike sense of play more in evidence than in The Prague Cemetery, his sixth novel. A global best-seller that was published in Italian in October 2010 and is now being published in English, it is a weird combination of elements that make sense together only in the universe of Eco: It is a deeply serious narrative argument about the origins of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the birth of modern anti-Semitism interspersed with lavish recipes and menus from the best restaurants in 19th-century Paris (he met with a smile my suggestion that he spin off an anti-Semites cookbook), and it is also a perverse and entertaining attempt to write a 21st-century version of a 19th-century French novel along the lines of Alexandre Dumas Père’s Joseph Balsamo, which Eco believes inadvertently provided the literary model for the Protocols forgery.
I met Umberto Eco at Peacock Alley, a wildly expensive restaurant in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. With its high vaulted ceilings, the lobby of the Waldorf looks like a train station and has similarly bad acoustics. Eco was tired and suffering from a slight cold, on the 11th day of a 14-day book tour that had him in a different city almost every night. Still, he was gracious and warm, looking askance at me only once, when he ordered a gin and tonic before lunch and I ordered orange juice.
The Prague Cemetery explores the trial of fictions and forgeries that gave birth to the Protocols through the fictional character of Simone Simonini, a forger and police spy, and his father, Capt. Simonini, who in the book writes the notorious Simonini letter, the first published sketch of the theory of a global Jewish conspiracy. While Capt. Simonini may or may not have been an invention of a 19th-century forger, the Simonini letter is real—as is, Eco assured me, every major character in the book, aside from the two Simoninis. When I told him that he had created the single most repulsive anti-Semite in the history of the novel, he bowed his head with a craftsman’s pride, while also noting that his main character is an equal-opportunity misanthrope, who hates Jews to the extent that he despises all of humankind.
Talk about anti-Semitism as a plot. You’re a novelist, a maker of plots. And then you have this other kind of plot, this ersatz, false, forged, conspiratorial plot.
It’s the paranoia of the universal plot. This is not strictly linked to anti-Semitism. Karl Popper, the philosopher, has written a beautiful essay on the plot-paranoia syndrome. He said it starts with Homer. Everything that happens at Troy is decided the day before on Olympus with the gods. So, he says, every society in a way elaborates the paranoia of somebody on their shoulders, deciding their fates. First, it’s a way to escape responsibility. It’s not me, it’s not my fault. Second, it’s very useful, especially for dictatorships. All my youth, until the age of 10, I was educated under the fascist dictatorship. And they said there was the demo-pluto-judo-cratic plot—democracies, plutocracies, and the Jews. It was a general plot in the world to humiliate Italy. And until yesterday Berlusconi continued his campaign about the communist plot against Italy. We have no more communists! Not even with a candle can you find them.
Conspiracies do exist. Probably in this moment in New York there is an economic group making a conspiracy in order to buy three banks. But if they succeed, they are immediately discovered. There was a conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar—the Ides of March. We discovered it. The universal conspiracy is more efficient for paranoia because you have no target. It’s a general presence in the world. And so you can always make records of the universal conspiracy without being proven false.
A 2006 Woody Allen film festival in Manhattan screened more than 30 of the New York master’s movies. One writer tried to go to every one of them.