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CULTURE Umberto Eco: “I Unmask the Plots of the Ones Who Generate Hatred”

umberto eco pagine ebraicheBy Guido Vitale*

You can be whoever you want to; you can count on an endless authority; you can receive the title for being the most appreciated and well-known Italian, living intellectual; you might have distributed millions and millions of copies of your works all around the world; you can be a legend; and you can even be that big to not have to emphasize your importance to others. But there is nothing you can do when it is the eve of your debut: it is always an open door to the unknown. It always brings that little bit of anxiety, curiosity and impatience, that everyone one faces in their own way. Will they like it? Will they understand it? Will it provoke passions, criticisms? Will it suffer some attacks? Under the sweet light of his beautiful house in Milan that borders the Sforza Castel, the interviewed, apparently relaxed, is waiting for the questions to come, while he is sinking in his candid armchair. Nevertheless, maybe he does not want to admit it out loud, not even professor Eco can avoid the rule of the eve; it is evident while he is giggling and he is chewing his cigarette holder without any cigarette in his mouth.
Exactly thirty years have passed since the epiphany of The name of the rose. The semiologist, who was already well-known back then as a scholar of language, signs and communication, would have let the word know that he can even be a great novelist. He released fifteen millions of copies of his first work which was translated in almost every language and they even produced a movie which was based on his work. Not only was it the affirmation of a great novelist, but also the start of a literary genre unique in his type, based on rigour and on documental validity and, at the same time, built on fascination, adventures and feuilleton. Then other four novels come out, such as Foucault’s Pendulum, The island of the day before, Baudolino, The mysterious flame of Queen Loana. We reach the present, with these confusing and alarming times, with the Prague Cemetery, the book that a lot of readers will not help buying starting from the last Friday of October.

Professor Eco, here we are: what is going to happen in the next few days?
This is something that I don’t know. The only thing that I can say is that I have enjoyed writing The Prague Cemetery. It has been a long work, a rigorous research, because the subject matter is very delicate, and all I wanted to do was to report only real and documented facts, to talk about people that really existed and lives that were really lived.

Are all the characters real?
Everyone but the protagonist, who is also the connective ring in this infernal circle of manipulations, counterfeits, murders, shallow actions and poisons. This certain person Simonini, led by hatred, binds together all the plots until the masterpiece of the anti-Semitic infamy is reached.

Then the protagonist is the only one who is imaginary.
Well, he is imaginary up to a certain point. Let us say that he is half invented and half real.

How is that possible?
See, it is possible, because this filthy Simonini who stages the plots would actually be the grandson of another SImonini, a guy that at the beginning of the nineteenth century took the trouble to diffuse a long, delirious document about anti-Semitism, one who saw complots and Hebrews everywhere and that denounced these last ones’ powers and plots. One that scooped hatred and prejudice in a cauldron.

In other words, we have to expect a history book…
In a sense, yes. It is the way you tell the story, the events of the nineteenth century and the ones that have affected the twentieth century that pick up the pace of a novel, of a feuilleton.

Look, the cartoonist of Pagine Ebraiche Enea RIboldi portrays you as a sorcerer’s apprentice in the October issue, which announces in sneak the release of your book. You have a wizard hat on your head; the poisonous smokes come out of the cauldron where who knows what kinds of devilries are distilled. And from the pot the cover of one of the greatest classics of the counterfeits of hatred, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion pops up as well. Should we be worried?
Mind you, this book does not talk about nice people, the reader needs to be warned.

In which sense?
See, after having dedicated one of my previous works to the first one of my nephews, I wanted to dedicate a new work to the second one of them. But in this case, I just did not feel like it, because the characters that waft around the pages are all inexorably unbearable. Really despicable.

The book contains the delirious obsessions and the plots of an anti-Semitic man full of hatred. Then why sink the reader in all this stuff? Do you not fear that the reading of your novel would stimulate the morbidity of people, especially of the ones that are easily impressionable?
Do you fear that I have been writing this book with bad intentions? With an ill will?

No, that is not the point. But have you taken into consideration the effects of diffusing a book that most probably is meant to know a great circulation? Do you not see the risks hidden around the corner?
The fact is that this book, from this point of view, does not say anything new at all.
It just rigorously reports documents and materials that have already been published and widely spread. If anything, it tries to figure out what is behind them. How the mechanisms of hatred work. Who makes use of them and why.

In other words, we are not talking about dangerous stuff?
See, whoever writes a treatise on chemistry can always expect other people to use it in order to poison their granny. But people with ill intentions are always out there. But in general, I do not really think that they need to read my books to form ideas in their minds. They already find what they need in wide circulation, starting with the Protocols of the Elders. On the contrary, with my book, I have been making an effort to unmask them, to highlight their plots.

Nevertheless, the reader could identify himself with the protagonist and like him.
I do not think so; all the characters that appear on the page are unbearably filthy and cynic. I do not see human traits that the reader could identify himself with.

Where was the idea of centring the last of your complex novel constructions on the counterfeits of hatred and on the authors of these infamies born?
It is the outburst of an obsession that has been following me for a long time. I have already written some in the past, in some parts of Foucault’s Pendulum, in the series of conferences I have been holding in Harvard and in the preface to The plot, the extraordinary work that Will Eisner precisely dedicated to the history of the Protocols.

With The Plot, the founder of the graphic novel from New York drew a shocking picture of this counterfeit that was meant to become the classic text of the anti-Semitic plotting theories. Thousands of times denied and contradicted both from reality and logic and thousands of times meant to be reprinted, this text was brought to the attention of the new readers in order to renovate their hatred towards what is different. Its preface is a little essay dedicated to the mechanisms of hatred: it is the recipe to understand why it is necessary for some of them to believe in the theory of the Hebrew plot despite all the logics and facts.
There is a well-known anti-Semitic man of the beginning of the twentieth century that has said that quite clearly: “Verifying whether the contents of the Protocols are true or false is not what matters. What does matter is that we could use that, that it meets our needs”.

Which needs?
The needs of having an enemy, someone we can blame the responsibilities of what happens on. It is someone whose shadow we fear, an enemy who we can draw our attention to. Anti-Semitism is the mental disease of the ones that need, despite all, to always blame someone, either for cowardice, or for the lack of personality.

Someone has noted that all the characters of The Prague cemetery talk following the same patterns; they all use the same language.
Of course they do, because the language of the ones that need to hate everyone bonds together all the ones that are held prisoners by the hatred itself.

But why, among everyone, do they blame Jewish people?
Well, because we cannot possibly blame it on the Hottentots. An enemy is always needed, and if he is among us, if he is omnipresent and has an alarming creativity, it is even better.

Besides the flowing of the narration, The Prague Cemetery has a charming effect which is particularly strong on the reader thanks to its capacity to tell the History. It is a rigorous History that though has been written as a popular novel of the eighteenth century. Plus, using a really particular iconographic set helps suggest the readers that are flipping through pages. How have the illustrations to your book been chosen?
That is true, there is a narrow interdependence between text and images, and the images that have been chosen are all authentic: they usually come from my private collection and they are really linked to the facts that have been told. In other cases, it is the image itself that, in some ways, has impressed my fantasy and that has come to life. The image heats up in order to write the pages that belong to it.

This is the comeback of another vice of yours, which is being a collector.
That is true. I have become a bibliophile and a collector, but it is not an old vice: it is a passion that has been growing both with the passing of my age and the success as a scholar, because it is a demanding passion; I published my very first novel only thirty years ago.

In this case, the old professor and semiologist and the young novelist have been writing the book as a duet. Let us go back, for example, to the expressive codes of the counterfeiters of the hatred that haunt the Prague Cemetery.
The book deals with people that are willing to firstly say anything and that end up saying all the opposite. According to them, Jewish people contract a lot of diseases; nevertheless, they live longer than the others. They have never created something that was worthy; nevertheless, they control the culture, the arts and the economy. They are repulsive human beings but yet the only girl the young Simonini is attracted to is a young girl from the ghetto of Turin. Everyone cherishes his clichés, nobody loses his coherence.

But actually, this is our society.
Yes, I would say so. This is a dossier of our days that fill the pages of our newspapers. It is the predisposition to stimulate suspects scattering signals that have been either twisted or previously planned. It is the increasingly spread offensiveness of the Italian society that brings managers and employees to mutually send offensive emails, delirious accusations and free discourtesies in any academic or scientific environment, in any company or agency: all these actions are being widened to an increasingly higher number of readers. From gossip, ill wills, false things that pretend to be true, to a big, global brawl, a cloud of dust where all the issues are mixed with a generalized weariness.

Who are you referring to?
I am obviously referring to a certain type of journalism, to a certain way of previously preparing operations in order to make the readers obsessed by great nonsense and to distract them from the real issues. I am also referring to the barbarization of the interpersonal and working relationships that we are all personally experiencing, to the copy-paste culture, to the arbitrary quoting, to the careless word of mouth which is always followed by ill will that is increasingly sinking us down to the bottom.

And in the end, can we always blame it on the Jewish people?
Yes we can, the risk exists, and the history of the poisons and of the counterfeits of the anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century, which the book is dedicated to, is also our story, a story that is contaminating our present. There is nothing new under the light of the sun. The reportages have always been changed, the journalists are often corrupted and careless and Jewish people have always been an object, precisely thanks to their capacity of being a subject.

What do you mean?
Jewish people are the repositories of the civilization of the book and of the culture, and even if they are not living in the Rotschild times anymore and the many differences in our contemporary society are less marked, you can still see their tracks. This is why it would be difficult for a fool to find a better enemy. An enemy is needed for a person whose identity is weak, and, unfortunately, a misunderstood group spirit or a misunderstood patriotism is often the last shelter of scoundrels.

Does this happen today like it happened yesterday?
What happens today is the same that happened yesterday to me. And I don’t need to revoke the culture of the hooligans. The populist rhetoric begins with the identification of an enemy. Berlusconi has invented communists when they were long gone.

A lot of readers take your books in their hands, and this is probably what is going to happen with your sixth literary work. Do we also have to fear strong reactions to the Prague Cemetery, which is exhuming all the poisons of our history?
I understand that the book might generate worries, but there is no reason to be concerned. Even if they are really serious, all the facts told are real, and we necessarily have to know them, to review them in prospective. Usually, the Hebrew world revises reactions that have been long thought and diversified, reactions that are not unique nor bigot. It may be different in different identities…

In this book nothing is spared. Given that the strong anti-Semitism that the Catholic world has been able to show is well highlighted, do you maybe fear some possible negative reactions from the Catholic world itself? Or who else’s reactions do you fear?
Everybody knows that the Jesuits of the Catholic Civilization have had a tremendous desire of hanging people. The fact that the first socialists developed a current thinking that was strongly anti-Semitic is totally real and documented. Also the rest is well documented. That things went the way they went and I cannot change. What matters is what we want to learn from the lessons of the past.

Professor Eco, confess: did you want to write a novel or a history book?
There are no more adventurous and passionate events than the ones that happen in real life. You just need to learn how to observe the reality, because it offers us way more adventurous hints than all the fantasies that we could possibly dream about can.

*A version of this article was published in Pagine Ebraiche on November 2010. The article has been translated by Giulia Paris, student at the Scuola superiore interpreti e traduttori di Trieste, ‎who is doing her apprenticeship in the newsroom of Pagine Ebraiche.