Everyone’s favorite Italian Professor of Semiotics/Author of Historical Fiction, Umberto Eco, has just come out with another novel, The Prague Cemetery, and it seems to be generating some interesting discussion. This is not surprising, since Eco’s novels are always an international literary event, but the subject matter of this particular book is especially troubling to some people. Unfortunately, I have not yet read this book (*hint* you just missed my birthday, but don’t worry! Christmas is just around the corner!), and all that I know about it I have gleaned from reviews. So I am in no way qualified to talk about this book at all. Of course, that is not going to stop me, don’t worry. Also, if you don’t like spoilers, you probably shouldn’t read on (or click on any of the links). So this is kind of like a review of a review. Very meta. But Daniel Levin’s review in the Daily Beast got me thinking. He brings up the possibility of Eco’s book providing fodder for anti-Semites in search of inspiration. He writes:
“The book’s implicit question is terrifying: are the same social frustrations at work today to revive The Protocols’s anti-Semitism? Just like the start of the last century, Europeans are mired in debt, Russians are nostalgic for their former greatness, the church is losing ground, and Arab nations are struggling to craft a coherent picture of their future. Wouldn’t a single, clean target once again be the refreshing cool glass of water to all these nationalities stumbling through a desert of self-doubt?”
Further on he adds:
“[T]he question arises: Will The Prague Cemetery’s own book-length recitation of age-old lies and stereotypes about Jews provide ready-made anti-Semites with a larger arsenal of imagery and rumor? With a million copies already sold, some have assuredly fallen into the wrong hands. Does Eco stay up at night wondering if any of those wrong hands belong to a future Simonini? He should. We all should.”
First of all, what kind of incompetent anti-Semite wouldn’t know about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? I seriously doubt there are many neo-Nazis that are eagerly awaiting the release of Umberto Eco’s newest novel, and if they are, good, maybe they will learn something. But aside from the alarmist rhetoric used in this review (and aside from the fact that Mr. Levin seems to conflate American readers with Dan Brown readers), I think the questions raised here are important: Is it wrong to include things in a novel that readers might misinterpret or misuse? Are novelists to blame for the way their novels are read?
Dan Brown is a good example actually. When The Da Vinci Code came out, a lot of people were convinced that it was filled with truth, and there was a whole backlash against the book for containing historical inaccuracies. Personally, I didn’t like it at all – I thought it was poorly written and not particularly interesting. But if you pick up a book like The Da Vinci Code (one that is clearly marked as a novel), you need to make sure that your expectations match the book you are reading, and not the book you wish you were reading. If you are reading a work of historical fiction, it is reasonable to expect some level of historical accuracy, but if you are after 100% historical accuracy, you should probably look elsewhere (in a history book for example). If you persist in reading a novel and pretending that it is a work of history, then that is your fault.
Eco address this issue himself in a recent interview in Tablet Magazine. He says:
“There is a simple difference between fiction and lie. In the fiction, I obviously tell something different from truth. I tell you that there is a girl called Little Red Riding Hood. But I pretend that she exists. And you pretend that she exists. And I know that you know that she doesn’t exist. But you are participating in my game. It’s said that during the puppet shows in the old Sicily, people were going to beat the villain because they were unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. But this is a rare case. Usually people understand.”
Basically, I think Eco would agree, people can take fiction and do all kinds of things with it; distort it, copy it, falsely attribute it, and perhaps most dangerously – believe it. He admits this in The Paris Review interview where he says “invention can produce reality.” He even gives the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an example! In fact, this is the very basis of the story of The Prague Cemetery, an exploration of how fiction can be made to produce facts, and the danger that this transformation entails. But if a text is presented as fiction (the way Eco and Brown have presented their novels), the way it is read is no longer the responsibility of the author.
When you create a text you cannot manage how it will be interpreted or used. You couldn’t even if you wanted to. However, I do believe that the author’s intentions do count for something, which is why I think Eco’s book should be read, even though some might take it out of context and misuse it. After all, the Bible has been used to justify all kinds of terrible things, but I wouldn’t advocate a ban on reading it. I would advocate a careful reading of it, but that is a different matter. The fact is, the intention behind Eco’s book is to demonstrate that modern anti-Semitism is a farce, a scam, and an act of pure invention. It is a baseless narrative, conceived in hate, just like all other forms of racism, and the reason he wants readers to know about it is because he believes we should learn from history rather than forget it. He is cautious about making parallels between historical events and the present (and I think he is right to be cautious), but he makes them anyway. In The Paris Review interview he says:
“[O]ne must be extremely careful with analogies. Once I wrote an essay in which I made some parallels between the Middle Ages and our time. But if you give me fifty dollars, I will write you an essay about the parallels between our time and the time of the Neanderthals. It’s always easy to find parallels. I think nonetheless that being concerned with history means making erudite parallels with the present time. I confess to being monstrously old-fashioned, and I still believe, like Cicero did, that historia magistra vitae: history is the teacher of life.”
For another take on The Prauge Cemetery, see Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s review in the New York Times. She has this to say about Eco’s protagonist: “Simonini is like a Forrest Gump of evil, always present where the action is.”
And, of course, if you haven’t yet read The Name of the Rose, what are you waiting for? They already made the movie version – it even has Sean Connery. You have no excuse.