A Despicable Protagonist

Simone Simonini, a man whom Umberto Eco claims he has tried to make into the most cynical and disagreeable character in all the history of literature is also the only non-fiction character in The Prague Cemetery, which is depressing given that there are a great many characters, and that the novel is, in essence, a history of anti-Semitism in 19th-century Europe.

It is also, in this, the crowning century of the newspaper, a history of fake news. Of falsified documents and planted stories. Of false flags and agents provocateurs.

Simone Simonini is a master forger, ultimately for sale to anyone on any side who wishes to obtain his services. He is, among other things, the purported forger of both the document that condemned Dreyfus and the one that exonerated him. His master work, however, the work that he strives throughout the novel to complete and sell to the highest bidder, is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, who meet, in his imagination, in a Jewish cemetery in Prague.

Why do so many of these very real movers and shakers of 19th Century Europe concentrate so on demeaning the Jews?

Here is how it was explained to Simonini:

National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. … Hatred warms the heart.

Some of this may sound eerily familiar to us, especially in this Year of Our Lord 2017. And while we are thinking of the despicable they who succumb to these despicable passions, let’s try to be certain that we don’t despise in return. It’s so very easy to become someone else’s they. In 19th Century Europe, it wasn’t only them, the dispossessed, who fell victim to hate. It was the also the elite. The we’s, if you count yourself as such. Eco doesn’t let you continue to count yourself as one who has escaped humanity’s original sin. All such illusions are buried in The Prague Cemetery. This Three Monkeys review describes a moral dillemma of which I found myself occasionally aware:

It can’t be denied, though, that the continous description of Jewish villainy brings about a whiff of ambiguity, certainly not intended by Eco but permeating every page of the book. Forced to read disgusting things about the Jews, the reader remains tainted by this antisemitic nonsense, and it’s even possible that someone may think that maybe there’s some truth if all, really all, the characters seem certain of these crimes.

Read with caution.