A conversation with Umberto Eco, whose new novel imagines one of the most anti-Semitic characters in fiction
In this sense, the Jews were so useful because they were everywhere. The model for The Prague Cemetery, I tell you in my novel, comes from Alexandre Dumas, the conspiracy of Cagliostro [in Dumas’ novel Joseph Balsamo]. But the pattern is the same. They are coming from all the countries of the world. They present themselves: “I am so and so from Copenhagen.” “I am the master of Honolulu.” In The Prague Cemetery, it is “I am Rabbi Dan from Jerusalem.” You need an entity that is ungraspable. They come from everywhere, so you cannot control them.
How do you understand the connection between this kind of plot-making activity and what a novelist does? The character of Simonini is like a corrupted version of a novelist. There’s money being paid, the documents are forgeries, you have governments involved, buying these plots and setting them up for their own political ends.
There is a simple difference between fiction and lie. In the fiction, I obviously tell something different from truth. I tell you that there is a girl called Little Red Riding Hood. But I pretend that she exists. And you pretend that she exists. And I know that you know that she doesn’t exist. But you are participating in my game. It’s said that during the puppet shows in the old Sicily, people were going to beat the villain because they were unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. But this is a rare case. Usually people understand.
Certainly Simonini could have been a fascinating novelist. He would’ve said, “Everything I say is false, only for entertaining.”
To you as a novelist and critic, there’s something precious about the game between the novelist and the reader and a corresponding need to preserve the space for reason to operate, and to separate fiction from reality. There’s something about a Simonini, the corrupted writer, that aims to collapse the distinctions that make criticism and writing and reading possible.
Literature is a perverse game because it’s too easy to say that the teller pretends that Little Red Riding Hood or Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina is a fiction. Step by step, I want you to lose your critical control and start crying about the fate of Anna Karenina. But then I know that once you finish reading the book, you come back to reality and at the second reading you don’t cry any longer but simply appreciate the way in which I obliged you to cry the first time. That is the perverse literary game. Simonini is more cruel. He wants you to believe. He doesn’t want to show his inner strategy. The writer desires that you discover my strategy. Simonini, no. Every forger wants to be taken seriously.
You wrote a novel, not a tract on anti-Semitism. At the same time, I felt that there was an argument in the book that’s emotionally important to you, which is to make a distinction between modern anti-Semitism—the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus case and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—and the anti-Semitism of the medieval church.
It was not an idea of mine. I was for instance inspired by that great book of Hannah Arendt called The Origins of Totalitarianism. She was very clear about what happened: Before the French Revolution, the anti-Semitism was theological. “They killed Jesus.” OK. They were poor people living in ghettos. So, some pogroms, some massacres. Nobody thought that the Jews wanted to conquer the world. They were the fiddler on the roof. With the French Revolution, there is the emancipation. The Jews start entering the banking milieu, the army—the Dreyfus case—literary salons. So, now there is a new kind of non-religious anti-Semitism. I frankly didn’t know the work of [Alphonse] Toussenel. He wrote two volumes—being a socialist, not Marxist—identifying Jews, Englishmen, and capitalists. So, all the Englishmen were Jews and were also capitalists.
This new form of secular anti-Semitism that ends with the idea of world domination came out, as far as I know, with the letter of the old Capt. Simonini. Maybe even the letter was a forgery, but it was there. It was republished the entire century in various forms. And it was the first complete design of the world domination by the Jews. All the arguments used later were already in the letter of the elder Simonini. So, I didn’t invent anything. I tried to give a narrative form.
What psychological function did this idea of Jewish world domination serve for people in a 19th-century world, in which the grand narratives of the Catholic Church, which had lasted for centuries, no longer felt binding?
Listen, you have seen through my story that some models of world domination were attributed to Jesuits, too. Jews probably sold better, so to speak. It’s my idea of racism. We are never racist against somebody who is very far away. I don’t know any racism against the Eskimos. To have a racist feeling there must be an other who is slightly different from us—but is living close to us. If in the 19th century Jews entered social life and began to become politically and financially powerful, that was another reason to start.
[Stops to order a gin martini on the rocks and gestures to the single drink on the table.] I won’t get drunk before the end. [He laughs, takes a sip of his drink, and then continues.] There was an anti-Semitic attitude for instance in Russia, where the Jews were living very closely to the muzhiki. But the muzhiki were illiterate, and the Jews, they were the people of the book. They read. So, they represented a sort of intelligentsia. They spoke another language. They made a strong inbreeding. Anti-Semitism was used to justify some pogroms, but the pogroms were for economic reasons. In the 19th century it becomes different.
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.