Umberto Eco and The Judeo-Christian Alliance

Source: El País – Umberto Eco y la liga judeocristiana

Umberto Eco and The Judeo-Christian Alliance
Critics in the Vatican and the Jewish community accuse Il cimitero di Praga, the author’s new novel, of flirting with anti-Semitism.
Lucia Magi reporting from Bologna, November 12, 2010

Umberto Eco in Seville
Umberto Eco – Born January 5, 1932 in Alessandria, Turin, Italy. Photographed this April during a visit to Seville. Photo by Jordi Socías.

Thirty years isn’t nothing – not in religious polemics, at least. That’s the time elapsed between the publications of The Name of The Rose, the first assault of the Bolognese author, semiologist, and thinker Umberto Eco on spiritual fiction, and The Cemetery of Prague, his stupendous new novel. The book has sold phenomenally (100,000 copies in only a week) and churned the already agitated cultural waters of Berlusconi’s Italy.

This time, Eco confronts not only the accusations of the Church but also the hostility of the Jewish community. In the book, he conducts the reader through page after page (and there are 528) of action and adventure in the 19th century, an excursion considered historically inaccurate by some and which turns on the mother of all conspiracy theories: that the all-powerful Jews are secretly plotting the fate of the world.

The gallery of historical figures in The Cemetery of Prague leaves nothing to be desired: there are a drug-addicted Sigmund Freud, Alfred Dreyfus, the French official condemned for being Jewish, the great Italian writer and patriot Ippolito Nievo, and Garibaldi. Between the historical names and actual events (which Eco describes with his habitually fanatical attention to detail) emerges the protagonist: “the only fictional character in the novel,” according to the author. He is Simone Simonini, a Torinese captain, a memorable anti-hero, and the most unpleasant person in the story.

A nineteenth-century Anti-Semite in full, the protagonist falsifies wills and traffics consecrated Hosts for Satanic Masses. His greatest work? Fabricating a nocturnal meeting among the tombstones of the Jewish cemetery in Prague in which elderly rabbis of the Twelve Tribes of Israel are said to plot the domination of the world. This false document stands in for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an actual Anti-Semitist pamphlet of the early 20th century which served as theoretical justification for the pogroms of Czarist Russia and the later Nazi persecution.

Detractors criticize Eco for placing the scene in a “false” historical montage and for constructing a “malign symphony” that is not interrupted. The Jewish community and the Church ask: Can an author who doesn’t intervene in the story avoid dangerous ambiguity? The newspaper of the Holy See doesn’t think so: “Denouncing Anti-Semitism while putting oneself in the skin of an Anti-Semite,” writes the historian Lucetta Scaraffia in L’Osservatore Romano, “Does not function as a true prosecution. The reader ends up contaminated with the anti-Semitic delirium [constructed by Eco]. When evil is evoked, it must be confronted by good, so there is a contrast. The reconstruction of evil without condemnation, without positive heroes, acquires the appearance of amoral voyeurism.” “The narration of Eco seeks to dismantle the false by reconstructing the falsehoods,” writes another historian, Anna Foa, in the monthly review of the Italian Jewish community. “If we heretics could enjoy the witches in The Name of the Rose, can we innocently do the same with the fantasies that fed the fanaticism of Hitler?” Eco pragmatically replies: “Whoever writes a chemistry manual could then be accused when someone uses it to poison his grandmother.”

Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, responded to that statement: “I think the message is ambiguous. This isn’t a scientific book which analyzes and explains; it’s a novel.” “My intention was to give my readers a punch in the stomach,” replied the semiologist, “Of a violence that convinced others.”

A hatred which also moves Simonini, taught from childhood to look down on Jews and women, trained in servility to power, and blinded by resentment: “I realized that I came into existence only to defeat that evil race. Only that hatred warms my heart,” he says.

Gad Lerner has intervened in the uproar from the pages of La Repubblica. According to him, the novel is destined to be a classic because in the end it tells something very universal and real. The protagonist Simonini explains to a secret agent of the czar: “Divine Providence has given us the Jews, and we will take advantage of them and pray that there is always someone to fear and despise.” Lerner sees in this dialogue a tremendously real desire: to define one’s community by identifying one’s enemies, to create a “them” so there is an “us.”

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