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Conspiracy Porn

The Prague Cemetery
By Umberto Eco
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 445 pp., $27)

Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born communist jihadist. The Mossad staged the attacks of September 11. Vince Foster was murdered on the orders of his lover, the notorious lesbian Hillary Clinton. The United States government is concealing the wreckage of an alien spacecraft that crashed in New Mexico in 1947. A secret society named the Priory of Sion protects the living descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.

It is tempting to think that we are living in a golden age of conspiracy theories. The Internet has certainly made it easier than ever before to disseminate sensational revelations about mysterious, tentacular organizations and their nefarious plots. Other digital technologies, such as Photoshop, have made it possible for ordinary computer users to take on a role once reserved for master forgers, and fabricate sophisticated “evidence” to support these conspiracy theories, thereby giving them even greater credence and circulation. And yet conspiracy theories have always been with us—they are, alas, an integral part of our culture.

They took on their modern form at the same moment that so many other elements of European civilization did, with the invention of the printing press. The first great explosion of popular print in the early sixteenth century consisted in large part of shocking revelations about conspiracies: that Martin Luther had entered into a secret pact with the devil, or that the Catholic Church was itself a giant conspiracy to enslave Christendom. Fears of a malign British conspiracy against the thirteen colonies had a crucial role in bringing about the American Revolution. Robespierre justified the Reign of Terror as a response to counterrevolutionary intrigue. With the Nazis and the communists, the obsessive pursuit of conspirators led to the greatest mass murders in history.

Contrary to what one might assume, the advent of stable democratic politics does nothing to reduce the popularity of conspiracy theories. Democracy, after all, rests on the belief that governments are better directed by the common sense of ordinary people than by the esoteric wisdom of exclusive elites. (The historian Sophia Rosenfeld has fascinating things to say on this subject in her new book Common Sense.) By its very nature, democracy tends to nourish a populist suspicion of elites, and from there it is just a short step to the conviction that these elites are involved in active conspiracies. The most influential populists in America today—right-wing talk-show hosts—see politics largely in conspiratorial terms. Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly accused liberal Democrats of deliberately plotting to bring about the 2008 economic collapse, so as to advance their agenda of turning the USA into the USSR. Glenn Beck has notoriously embraced a host of conspiracy theories, inspired in some cases by the work of crackpot anti-Semites, and often centering on the Jewish financier George Soros. But conspiracy theories are not exactly lacking on the left, either.

Conspiracies are the sinister doppelgängers of our attempts to understand the world around us in rational terms. And, of course, we love them. With its promise of initiation into occult mysteries, and its revelation of order where others only see chaos, the conspiratorial frame of mind brings distinct psychological pleasures. Hence the enduring popularity of fiction that might be characterized as conspiracy porn, exemplified most recently by Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson. It is hard to say which of these two writers has the more turgid prose, the more impoverished capacity for description, or the thinner, more stereotyped characters. But both of them are remarkably adept at slowly, teasingly pulling away one layer after another of a hidden plot, each time giving tantalizing new glimpses of the secret truth, but always holding back the full story until the final climax. Brown, in particular, has perfected the “Key to All Mythologies” as striptease.

Neither Brown or Larsson, however, can hold a candle to some earlier practitioners of what has been a long and proud tradition. In particular, they pale before the great nineteenth-century master of conspiracy fiction, Alexandre Dumas. The Man in the Iron Mask, with its story of terrible intrigues against the brother of Louis XIV, and The Three Musketeers, featuring the dastardly plots of Cardinal Richelieu and Milady, are perhaps the best remembered of Dumas’s novels; but in most of them the plot centers on, well, plots. Perhaps the single most lurid, sensational, spine-tingling fictional evocation of a secret conspiracy ever written comes in the first chapter of Dumas’s now largely forgotten novel Joseph Balsamo, which appeared in 1846. Here he brought together all the iconic elements of the phenomenon. On the grounds of a ruined castle, on a remote mountain in Germany, in the year 1770, a series of cloaked figures emerge from the gloom. They verify their identities by exchanging passwords. They subject new members to frightening initiation rites. And then they finalize a sinister plan to change the course of history, in this case by destroying the monarchy of France. Unfortunately, nothing in the rest of the novel lives up to its opening, as the book laboriously follows the career of its title character, a real figure better known as Cagliostro, who badly damaged the reputation of the French royal family in the Diamond Necklace Affair of the 1780s.

IT IS PRECISELY THIS opening scene from Dumas that provides one of the starting points for The Prague Cemetery. Umberto Eco is probably the world’s best-selling postmodernist novelist, who famously declared, in the postscript to The Name of the Rose, that “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” The Name of the Rose was itself an explicitly postmodern tissue of allusions to other texts, from Aristotle to Sherlock Holmes, larded with philosophical meditations on the construction of truth, but enlivened by a sensational murder mystery, vivid descriptions of the medieval setting, and a healthy dollop of transgressive romance (a cruel French critic recently called Eco “Dan Brown for Ph.D.s”). Now, in this most recent novel, Eco has put aside most of the sex and much of the mystery, and abandoned himself almost entirely to intertextuality, borrowing copiously and overtly from Dumas and a host of other nineteenth-century novelists. (He even illustrates the story with nineteenth-century engravings.) This is a book about the making of books, which tells the story of a conspiracy to manufacture conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories, and their fabrication, are of course well-worn themes for Eco. In The Name of the Rose, his protagonists uncover a plot by figures in the Catholic Church to suppress a dangerous text: Aristotle’s treatise on comedy. Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, centers on a group of Italians who concoct a giant conspiracy theory as a game, only for it to turn—or so it seems-frighteningly real. Illuminati, Rosicrucians, Knights Templar, Jesuits, the Priory of Sion, and the Elders of Zion are all familiar sights along Eco’s curriculum vitae. With an insistent postmodern playfulness that can be tediously repetitive, he uses novels to comment on the genre of the novel, on verisimilitude, and on the boundaries between fact and fiction. Deliberately concocted conspiracy theories—that is to say, fictions masquerading as fact, and bringing the orderliness of an imaginary world to the messiness and complexity of the real one—are perfect grist for his fictional mill.

The Prague Cemetery, which extends Eco’s meditations on the subject, tells the life story of one of the most extraordinarily repulsive individuals in recent fiction. Raised in Turin in the 1840s by a bitter, twisted, reactionary grandfather who blames all the ills of the world on the French Revolution and on the Jews, Simone Simonini grows up cruel, repressed, and numb to ordinary human emotion. Dismissing women as “a repulsive sex,” he feels desire for nothing but food, and the novel at times seems to read like a series of recipes and restaurant menus: agnolotti alla piemontese, tartare all’albese, écrivisses bordelaises, mousses de volaille, mauviettes en cerises, petites timbales à la Pompadour, cimier de chevreuil, and so on. Reduced to poverty by an unscrupulous lawyer, Simonini discovers a talent for forgery, and thereby comes to the attention of the Piedmontese secret service at the very moment that the Kingdom of Piedmont is spearheading the unification of Italy. It employs him in various intrigues involving the revolutionary nationalist Garibaldi, at one point sending him to war-torn Sicily in the company of none other than Alexandre Dumas (who did in fact travel there on his yacht in 1860). But having carried out his assignments with somewhat too much zeal, Simonini is handed off by the Piedmontese to the French secret service. He spends the rest of the century in Paris, taking part in intrigues involving everything from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Dreyfus Affair, and working for everyone from Napoleon III to the Prussian secret services to the czarist Okhrana, while also consorting with a host of notorious fraudsters and forgers.

AS ECO EXPLAINS in a final section titled “Useless Learned Explanations,” he has taken all these characters, except Simonini himself, from actual history. Simonini, in fact, comes across as a nineteenth-century Zelig, although far more active and malign. Among other things, we discover that it was actually Simonini who framed Captain Dreyfus for supposedly selling French military secrets to Germany, thereby precipitating the greatest crisis of the French fin de siècle. The great crisis of Simonini’s own career, meanwhile, arises from his connection with the notorious French journalist known as Léo Taxil, who spent twelve years industriously publishing sensational revelations about lurid anti-Catholic conspiracies, only to cause an enormous scandal by announcing, in 1897, that he had made it all up to embarrass the Church.

In the course of these adventures, Simonini slowly puts together his greatest work of all—and this is where Joseph Balsamo comes in. A number of his employers ask Simonini to forge eyewitness accounts of the secret meeting of a great conspiratorial organization. He obliges, and explicitly takes Dumas’s scene as the template: “Let us imagine conspirators who come from every part of the world and represent the tentacles of their sect spread throughout every country. Let us assemble them in a forest clearing, a cave, a castle, a cemetery or a crypt, provided it is reasonably dark. Let us get one of them to pronounce a discourse that clearly sets out the plan, and the intention to conquer the world.” The actual identity of the conspirators does not entirely matter: depending on the needs of the particular employers, it can be the Illuminati or the Jesuits, the Freemasons or the Jews. “Here’s a form to be filled out at will, by each person with his own conspiracy.” The location shifts back and forth as well, as Simonini and a host of collaborators and competitors continuously revise the account, adding in allusion after allusion, borrowing from one printed account after another, in an orgy of intertextuality.

Most often the meeting takes place in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, whence Eco’s title. Only at the end of the novel does Simonini finish the manuscript, giving it to the Russians, and it is hardly a spoiler to reveal the title under which it becomes known, for Eco has hinted at this denouement for hundreds of pages: it is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is of course the notorious forgery, in reality concocted by the Russian secret services, and purporting to reveal plans for Jewish world domination, which twentieth-century antiSemites put to frighteningly effective use, and which continues to be regularly re-issued throughout the Arab world. In the final pages of The Prague Cemetery, Simonini confesses that “the whole purpose of my life has been to bring down that accursed race,” and delights in the fact that “thanks to my work, all the Mordechais in this world are on their way to a tremendous raging pyre.” (Mordechai was the name of a Jew who supposedly confessed plans for world domination to Simonini’s grandfather.)

OF COURSE, SINCE the author of this horrific story is Umberto Eco, none of it comes across straightforwardly. The novel opens with Simonini as an old man, in 1897, apparently trying to recover from some sort of trauma, and writing a journal at the suggestion of a brilliant young doctor he has encountered, a “whingeing little Jew” named, rather too obviously, “Froïde.” Simonini discovers mysterious traces of a stranger, a cleric, in his apartment, and soon the cleric begins leaving him notes that betray a surprising knowledge of his life. Who is this man? An enemy? A ghost? A fantasy? Or perhaps an alter ego, the other side of a split personality? The narrative voice shifts back and forth between Simonini and the cleric, with occasional interventions by an omniscient narrator, as Simonini struggles to recapture a suppressed memory and to deal with the traumatic event behind it. Only at the end of the novel, even as Simonini frames Dreyfus and gives the Protocols to the Okhrana, does Eco reveal the nature of this trauma, in a macabre scene that reads like X-rated Dumas. Alas, readers originally drawn to Eco by the young monk’s sexual escapade in The Name of the Rose will have given up long before they reach this point.

From a historical and philosophical point of view, The Prague Cemetery is a smart and intricate success: a fiction, hammered together out of spare boards of fact, about the concoction of a real historical document that itself tells a deeply and malevolently false story. All of this comes into focus only slowly, as the reader pieces together clues from the fragmentary writings of a deeply unreliable narrator who fears he is himself delusional, unable to tell fact from fiction, and uncertain as to whether the trauma that induced the delusion in the first place ever actually happened. Negotiating Eco’s circles within circles within circles quickly induces a degree of vertigo—exactly as the author intended, no doubt. In the end, however, the playfulness is ingenious, but it is not particularly profound.

In Europe, one particular element of Eco’s concoction has provoked criticism: its depiction of Jews. Simonini describes the stereotypical Jew as having “the profile of a vulture, with fleshy lips, the lower lip heavily protruding like a Negro’s, deep-set watery eyes, eyelids less open than those of other races.” At one point he encounters a renegade Jew named Brafmann, who tells him the story of the secret Jewish organization known as the Kahal, that acts as a “secret government” behind the scenes, manipulating Christian governments and working for Jewish world domination. The Kahal was in fact central to nineteenth-century accounts of Jewish conspiracies, including the wildly popular ones of the French anti-Semite Édouard Drumont (who, needless to say, also appears in The Prague Cemetery), as well as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Still, Brafmann himself was an all too real historical figure—a Russian Jewish convert to Christianity who taught Hebrew at the Orthodox seminary in Minsk and published copious anti-Semitic propaganda—and a writer can hardly hope to portray an anti-Semite with any verisimilitude if he does not put anti-Semitic stereotypes into the man’s mouth.

This is not an anti-Semitic book. In fact, it is precisely the figure of the Jew which, from a historical and philosophical perspective, provides its most fascinating and subtle elements. As David Nirenberg has suggested in a series of brilliant articles, Jews have played a surprisingly important role in the genealogy of the philosophical and linguistic issues with which Eco is wrestling. In Christian thought, the Jew has often served as a sign of carnality and corruption. If the Christian believer strives for a higher and transcendent truth of the spirit, the Jew represents the low, limited, sordid reality of matter. In the world of the flesh—that is, the world of the Jew—all exchanges, and therefore language itself, is corrupt, imperfect, and false: “for now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” The Jew himself can therefore become the sign of forgery and fiction. Except that in The Prague Cemetery, it is the Jews who instead become the subject of one of the most evil and effective forgeries and fictions ever devised, a book concocted (in Eco’s telling) by a forger disgusted with his own flesh but unable to overcome it, whose exterminationist anti-Semitism is clearly a manifestation of his own infinite self-loathing.

In Eco’s novel, the figure of the Jew knits together forgery and fiction, conspiracy and carnality. In the climactic, trauma-inducing scene of the novel—a Black Mass, no less—a renegade priest denounces the “false god Jesus Christ” and then declares, in mockery of the Gospels: “In the beginning was the flesh, and the flesh was with Lucifer, and the flesh was Lucifer.” Is it a coincidence that Eco has named his protagonist Simon, recalling both the given Jewish name of the apostle Peter, and the sorcerer Simon Magus, who tried corruptly to sell the blessings of the Holy Spirit (and who thereby gave his name to simony)?

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN WONDERFUL if Eco’s talent as a storyteller had, in this novel, lived up to his philosophical and critical ambitions. Unfortunately, it does not. (The same was true of Foucault’s Pendulum.) For all the fascination of the questions Eco poses, and the intellectual pleasure involved in teasing out the successive puzzles, the book’s exposition is labored and confusing. “The Narrator is aware,” Eco writes in his afterword, “that, in the fairly chaotic plot sequence of the diaries reproduced here ... the reader might have difficulty in following the linear progression of events.” Well, yes. Doubtless, Eco means this statement as yet another whirling, playful gesture, but it raised too loud a laugh from this reader. And the chronological table of events provided by Eco proved all too necessary to make sense out of the preceding 439 pages. Names and dates fly past so quickly that I sometimes found it almost impossible to keep track—and I teach modern European history for a living. I do not see how anyone could easily appreciate, or even follow, the pages on the Dreyfus Affair without a detailed knowledge of its events and its protagonists. Between virtuosity and pretension, erudition and obscurity, the lines are thin.

Then there are the masses of detail that Eco throws in. He may have included them so as to play even further with the conventions of novelistic verisimilitude, but they have a crushing effect. “Today,” one character remarks all too casually, apropos of bomb-making, “there’s more interest in nitrobenzene and nitroaphthalene. Or if you treat paper and cardboard with nitric acid, you obtain nitramine, which is similar to xyloidin.” Glad to have that explained. Forty pages later Eco tells about the animal corpses that piled up in the Paris sewers in a single six-month period: four thousand dogs, five calves, twenty sheep, seven goats, eighty hens, sixty-nine cats, nine hundred fifty rabbits, a monkey, and a boa constrictor. At least the list has a certain morbid entertainment value. But then there are the recipes, and the menus.

Worst of all, Eco gives the reader very little reason to follow the long, tortuous story of the misanthropic Simonini, who not only lacks all redeeming features but finally, and more fundamentally, lacks interest. Eco does better with many of the minor characters taken from history, including Dumas, Garibaldi, various other motley and bumbling Italian revolutionaries, and a cunning Russian spy. But nearly all of them flit by in a few pages and then disappear. The romance and the mystery that enlivened The Name of the Rose, and saved it from drowning in a froth of philosophical speculation, are almost totally absent from The Prague Cemetery. In the end, Umberto Eco has forgotten the single most important ingredient for successful conspiracy theories and novels alike. They can be outlandish, outrageous, and even frankly unbelievable; but, as even the crudest generator of Internet rumors remembers as he spins out the latest tale about how the KGB secretly altered President Obama’s birth certificate, they should never, ever be boring.

David Bell is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.