Umberto Eco died Feb. 19, 2016, at the age of 84. The following conversation was published in 2011.
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
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
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.
I love the novels of the late José Saramago, and I remember listening to him talk about the Israeli Nazis and this and that. And I’m listening, and I think, here’s this extremely talented novelist who understands human psychology in a deep way and writes great books. And here he’s spouting this crude insanity.
You know, Saramago was against every religion. He had a very anarchist spirit. I don’t remember his remarks, but I remember he was an old communist. He was a nice person.
You feel you know a person through his books. You can feel the spirit of a person. And then to hear this stuff so at odds with the person that I knew very well from my reading was a shock. But the reading wasn’t a mistake, either.
We have always to make a distinction between texts and authors. Take Ezra Pound. He was really a fascist in the political space. But he was simply an anarchist who was against the accumulation of money. And living in Italy at that time, he had the impression that fascism was good. But if you read the poetry of Ezra Pound without knowing what he did, he’s a great poet, and you have to make a sharp distinction. One can be a great poet and be politically stupid. With Céline it is very difficult to make a distinction between he and his work.
I like Céline. I love Journey to the End of Night. I don’t like the anti-Semitic tracts.
He’s a great writer. But some of his texts are really racist. You cannot say he was a racist in his private life and these texts are not—no, no. There is a strict link there. So, you have to be very well-balanced and prudent as a critic to appreciate a writer in spite of his positions. It’s very easy to say that Mein Kampf is badly written. OK. No problem.
Céline is not badly written. And the anti-Semitism really is part of his work. Talk to me about being a child in fascist Italy and growing up in school with this sense of the vast democratic-capitalist-Jewish conspiracy targeting your country, and what that felt like.
First of all, it happened until I was 11 years old.
Well, you know the famous Jesuit saying: “Give me a child until he’s 7, I’ll give you the man”?
I couldn’t escape from the fascist education until the age of 11, when there was the fall of the regime, and then I realized that there were many other perspectives in the world. During the fascist education, like everybody else I wrote texts saying that I wanted to die for my country, for the greatness of Italy. I would say it with a certain cynicism. I remember that one day, I was 9 or 10 years, but I asked, “Do I really love Mussolini? Because they say that kids like me love Mussolini. Is it true? Or I am sick?”
You have not seen my book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? It’s the story of that education, in which the texts that opened me to a different world were the American comic books. “Mickey Mouse: Journalist” told me that there was the problem of the freedom of the press. He was fighting for the freedom of the press—a concept that was absolutely nonexistent in fascist Italy. Flash Gordon was fighting against a ruler, for freedom. So, I was educated by fascist schoolbooks obviously, but also by the counter-literature not controlled by the censor, namely, comic books.
Did you know any Jews growing up?
No. Only just on the verge of my 11 years, playing with some friends on the streets. At that time, it was possible to play on the streets of the city because there was a car passing through every 10 minutes. People were very well-dressed, taking away the weeds, cleaning the sidewalks. And one of them talked with me. He said, “You are the young Eco. Tell my best to your father because he knows me. I am Mr. Taverno.” In Italy, instead of picking them and sending them to camps, they humiliated them, obliging them to spend time in manual works. And so at that time, I started to see that there were some people who were Jews. Yes, it could’ve happened that in the family they said of somebody, “They are Jews.” But they said it as they would say, “He’s from Turin. He’s not from Alessandria.” So, no, there was no real perception of the difference. It was only at the end of the war that I understood the whole story.
Did you go to church as a child?
Yes. I was a fervent Catholic, and I belonged to the national organizations, even becoming one of the national leaders, until the age of 21, 22. Then there was a first political collapse, because we were the young Catholics, very left-oriented. Then I was starting to study the Middle Ages, and reading Thomas Aquinas. In this process of education, there was a process of disconnection. OK. But I in a way remained sentimentally linked to that world.
It wasn’t by chance I wrote The Name of the Rose like that, because it was the world of my youth. For the same reasons, when I am with faithful friends of my age, after midnight in the countryside, we start singing the fascist hymns because they were those that we sang in the school. There’s a sort of nostalgia. So, secretly, we remain linked to certain melodies.
It’s a terrible thing, right? Because in the end it’s a childhood song, no matter what else it meant.
We sang the fascist hymns and the Catholic songs. That was our childhood.
When I go to churches now in Europe, like a good American tourist, one of the things that’s most striking is that except for other tourists like me and five old ladies, they’re empty. You belong to the last generation of Europeans to grow up in a Christian Europe.
Once Chesterton said—Chesterton was a Catholic—“When men no longer believe in God, it’s not that they believe in nothing. They believe in everything.” Today there are new sects, New Age, astrology, cyborg mythology. Man is a religious animal. Man cannot accept the idea of dying, so we have to believe in something, to give this sense of survival, of mystery, of something beyond death.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.