A conversation with Umberto Eco, whose new novel imagines one of the most anti-Semitic characters in fiction
The Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine killed a third of the Jewish population. In Spain, the entire population was expelled. In medieval England, the entire population was murdered or expelled. The entire Jewish populations of major cities in Germany were exterminated during the Crusades. The technology may have been lacking for global murder, but certainly the spirit was strong.
They were not accused of conquering the world. They were different and they were disturbing and they were speaking another language. They refused to be converted. Everybody who wouldn’t be converted had to be killed. Fine. But I think Hitler couldn’t have his elaborate vision on the grounds simply of religious anti-Semitism. He needed secular anti-Semitism. That’s the Protocols—exactly that. Because the Protocols are not so naïve to say that the Jews kill babies for God. They are dominating the banks, the newspapers. It’s a different view.
One of the things that’s always darkly funny to me, as a Jew, about anti-Semitism—and it comes out in the novel too—is that you can find people on opposing sides of every political spectrum who are united by Jew-hatred. Voltaire was a terrible anti-Semite. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church he despised was also anti-Semitic. The Jews should be eliminated either for religious or for secular and anti-religious reasons. The Jews live too long. The Jews are physically weak. Jews are wealthy and dominate everything. The Jews are poor vermin and pose a danger to public health.
I have been always fascinated by that, maybe because according to some of my friends I have a Talmudic spirit.
The Name of the Rose was an exceptionally Talmudic novel.
My grandfather was a foundling. So, I always said, maybe he was. But my grandmother was clearly a goy, so I am not Jewish. But I remember when I met the wife of Elie Wiesel in Paris. She said, “Comment allez-vous?” [He switches into French to explain that he answered Wiesel’s wife by complaining that he had a cold, rather than answering that he was happy and well, to which she responded by saying that he was clearly Jewish.]
Novelists are generally very sensitive at whatever level in their own psyches to whatever is going on in the worlds around them. So, why did you write this book now?
There can be many reasons. One is that I was interested in forgeries and then in Protocols. Since the Foucault’s Pendulum I have written many, many essays on that. At a certain moment, as it happens when you have finished a previous book and you are looking around—oh, why not? I was a devotee of popular novels of the 19th century. The literature on the Protocols is enormous. And there are some excellent books, historical books, like Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide. But being old, academic books they were not as accessible, and the Protocols are still believed. So, maybe I wrote my novel to give it a narrative form, to explain, through narrative, how such a concoction is possible. Maybe it can reach a larger number of people than the academic literature can.
But in the beginning I was not convinced because the material was dirty, it was stinky. I felt a certain embarrassment. To jump over my nose-reaction and to give a punch to the stomach of my reader with the first pages, I used all the existing clichés. The anti-Jewish part is Céline, Bagatelles Pour un Massacre. The anti-German is half Nietzsche and half a book written by a Frenchman at the beginning of the First World War, the one in which the Germans produced more fecal matter than other people.
Within the Jewish community one of the historical reactions to the moment that you write about, to the Dreyfus case, was Zionism. You have Theodore Herzl, a Viennese journalist, who is sitting in Paris at the same time as your Simonini is.
I stop at that point.
Herzl was like Disraeli. Disraeli, being a Jew, wanted to demonstrate how Jews are smart and produced half of the anti-Semitic clichés of the period. And in fact, Toussanel was using Disraeli to say that, it is true, there is a Jewish conspiracy. “Do you know the prime minister in Russia is a Jew? Do you know that this one is a Jew?” He was offering arguments for the Jewish conspiracy while his intention was to show how Jews were smart and intelligent. And this being a narrative, you can’t ask, why didn’t you speak of that, of that, or of that?
But still: It’s rare now in Paris or London or Madrid to find people who say that a conspiracy of Jewish rabbis controls the world. It’s no longer “the Jews” who are controlling the world, but “the Zionists”—who also happen to be Jews involved in a global conspiracy that controls governments, the banks, and the press.
The moment that there’s a Jewish state, once again the whole story changes. There are people who are not anti-Semites by nature but leftists. Being with the Arabs and becoming anti-Israeli, they automatically become anti-Semitic. I had to open a critical discussion with the boycotters, especially in England, in the journal Translation, a very good journal. There were two Tel Aviv scholars, notoriously critical of their government, who were expelled, which is obviously another form of racism. Because you are not responsible for what Netanyahu is doing in this moment, as I am not responsible for the deeds of Berlusconi even though he and I are both Italians. The shifting from anti-Israel-ism to anti-Semitism is pretty natural.
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.