It’s his historiography I have a problem with. A.S. Byatt, who knows whereof she speaks when it comes to the historical “novel of ideas”, has already had a go at The Prague Cemetery for resembling a scorpion: waving around some dangerous paraphernalia, but ending its life a dried up, papery shell. But for me, it’s the historiography.
This should have been the novel that Eco was born to write. Or perhaps we should say that, like a golem and rabbi rolled into one, it is the book he created himself to write. It has a the tropes and techniques familiar from the classics Eco novels: occult organisations, conspiracies stretching across the centuries, a battle with enormous moral significance but confusing incidents, a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, the Knights Templar, and a style so copious it leaves you skimming the Psalms for a suitable metaphor. It also has a pretty large subject with ready-made moral heft, not to mention baggage: The Prague Cemetery is about the writing of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. An extraordinary document (in the worst sense), this anti-Semitic fantasy portrays a cabal of international Jews laying out their plans to corrupt and dominate the world, and enjoyed what it retrospect seems a baffling level of acceptance and respectability in Europe in the early twentieth century. London newspapers ran sober articles about the implication of this “discovery” and as late as the 1990s it was published by the government-controlled media of Iran.
So for those who may have been a little lost amidst the religious politics of The Name of the Rose or the Byzantine byways of Foucault’s Pendulum, this latest might seem to offer a more secure footing from which to enjoy Eco’s intellectual gymnastics. If the endpoint of the novel is The Protocols and mid-century European anti-Semitism, that’s handy. We know what we think about that. We can follow the dashings around in time, space and political alignment with greater ease, given the fixed point it must all end up at. It also feels like he’s putting his anarchic skills in the service of a greater narrative, toning down the slippery ironies of Eco the Semioticist and bringing Umberto the Novelist to bear on a set of events which (as Peter Watson recently pointed out in The German Genius) seem to grow in importance as they recede in time.
Of course, this is not what happens. Instead we are treated to the disoriented rantings of an extreme right-winger who may well be one facet of a split personality, and who really loves his food. The food bits are pretty good, actually. Now property programmes have taken a nose-dive, food seems to be the only reliable topic for TV to witter on about, and in one sense Eco is essentially doing a postmodern “Masterchef Revolutions vs Come Racist Dine With Me” mash-up. If you can’t stand the artistic pretensions of foodie-ism, Eco on nosh might be just the thing. In another sense, the food throws the history off-centre: like Auden musing on Icarus, it insists that no-one experiences history as history. Instead, we experience history via the medium of lunch. Unlike so many other historical novelists, Eco manages to write people in extraordinary times who are neither portentously aware of the march of epochs, nor idyllically insulated from them, but baffled, caught up and enraged by them, for all the wrong reasons. His novels deny us the generally agreed landscapes of the past, the broad consensus overviews studded with “did you know” which we might expect from fiction set more than a couple of decades ago.
But there’s another aspect of the history thing which makes The Prague Cemetery unsatisfying. The origins of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as told (amongst other) by David Aaronovitch in Voodoo Histories, is one of the most fascinating cautionary tales in modern history. This ludicrous and poisonous text is a remarkable example of the way in which texts become detached from their “intended” meanings, how people will decide that a document means what they’d like it to, and how debunking is trumped by the desire to believe. It’s also an account of a work which is patently false, but at very few points over its long history did anyone actually sit down and decide to make something up out of whole cloth. Inventing a focal protagonist (or two) who serve as the uniting strand in its story, always standing near the events as history unfolds, is an almost perverse, and perversely uninteresting, treatment of the story. One of the most powerful uses of the real story of the Protocols is as evidence that remarkable and puzzling events do not require a deliberate conspiracy to guide their motion. Their own history serves as a warning against the kind of paranoid and dangerous thinking they contain.
All of which is probably a longer way of saying Umberto Eco wrote the novel he wanted to, not the one we thought he might or ought to have written. It’s extremely exciting, very funny in places, and I would just like to reiterate that the passages about food are really worth one’s time. But I can’t stop worrying about the historiography.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, December 2011.