Book review: The Prague Cemetery

The forger’s tale is a true insight into the nature of conspiracies, says David Rosenthal

HATRED must be cultivated, proclaims Peter Rachkovsky to Simone Simonini, the anti-hero of Umberto Eco’s latest novel. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. Hatred warms the heart. “So, by God, let us pray there is always some Jew to fear and hate.”

Unlike Simone, but like almost everybody else in The Prague Cemetery, Rachkovsky was a real flesh and blood character. He was the Paris chief of the Russian secret service towards the end of the 19th century, and is sometimes identified – though nobody knows for sure – as the “author” of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious fabrication that is still circulated on the internet as authentic by anti-Semitic hate groups.

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The Protocols describe the minutes of a clandestine meeting of Jewish leaders in Prague aimed at world domination, a plot to undermine gentile civilisation by taking control of the banks and the Press. The Protocols were a patchwork of plagiarisms, quickly becoming suspect and exposed as a forgery by the 1920s.

Yet they were also a dream text for conspiracy theorists. Tsarists used them to scapegoat Jews for the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Henry Ford had them printed by the truckload in the US, and the Nazis made them one of the centrepieces of their propaganda machine, a convenient and enabling myth.

Into the Protocols’ murky origins Eco drops the arch forger Simone, the fictional grandson of a genuine Captain Simonini, whose rantings helped to draw conspirato- rial links between Jews and masons. Simonini tells the young Simone that he was baptised in honour of the ritually murdered Simon of Trent – a famous blood libel against the Jews in the 15th century – and with that the die seems cast. Simone starts his career in his native Turin, as a forger of wills.

But his talents soon lead him into a shadowy underworld of espionage, blackmail and murder. As he makes his way through the Risorgimento, the Franco-Prussian War and the Dreyfus Affair, he hooks up with some of the characters whose work was lifted for the Protocols, such as French satirist Maurice Joly and Hermann Goedsche, a wretched German clerk who effectively provided a draft of the nefarious Prague cemetery gathering in a novel of the 1860s.

In Eco’s fabrication of the often obscure events behind a fake, Simone, driven by his grandfather’s bigotry and at the same time a rank opportunist, is the linchpin. It is he who furnishes Goedsche with the Prague story, and, inevitably, it is he who is brought together by the end with the Russian Rachkovsky and his fanatically racist successor Golivinsky. When the forging of the Protocols is complete, Golivinsky tells him with relish that “many will understand that we have reached the moment of the final solution”.

When The Prague Cemetery was first published in Italy last year, and went on to become a bestseller, there were those who found the entire enterprise questionable, including the country’s chief rabbi. Neither has its presentation as an episodic potboiler – which takes its cue from serialisations of Dumas – nor the anti-Semitic caricatures dropped in along the way, sat particularly well with some reviewers.

To be sure, there is plenty to dislike about this novel. Written as a memoir by Simone in 1897, now attempting to reconstruct his half-repressed past on the advice of a Jew called (groan) Dr Froide, it can be hard to follow. It is too long and there are too many slabs of historical detail, fascinating though they are, to wade through.

Simone’s attempts, meanwhile, to come to terms with a certain Abbe della Piccola, a man who could be his alter ego, might have something to say about the counterfeiting of identity, but the dialogue between them is distracting. Like Foucault’s Pendulum, in which Eco also briefly addressed the Protocols, the pastiche of erudition combined with a substantial cast of thinly drawn characters creates a glittering surface. That’s the idea, but it leaves too little for the reader to invest in over the long haul.

Yet there is nothing unpalatable about the point Eco unambiguously is making and which he has defended against his critics. The Prague Cemetery is a powerful riff on the nature of conspiracy theories, about how, given the right circumstances, prejudice can be cultivated into hatred, can make a lie feel like an essential hidden truth, even to those peddling it.

As Simone’s boss tells him while he is learning his trade, it’s not forgeries they’re making, but documents that could, and should, have been produced, which prove what is already known to be fact.

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco. Harvill Secker, 448pp, £20