News about Umberto Eco

15.11.2011 - Umberto Eco Unlocks The Secret History of Antisemitism

By Barbara Chai

Umberto Eco’s favorite drink is a gin martini, on the rocks. The toothpick stabbed through two fat olives, he sets aside.

We meet at the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley Restaurant to discuss the English-language release of his latest novel, “The Prague Cemetery.” He strolls over to me with the help of a cane, which he lays flat on the right side of the table. The cane is a new purchase, after Eco irritated his sciatica during the eight-hour flight from Europe. “Okay, I can survive,” he says as he orders a drink.

About that drink. He leans in almost conspiratorially and says, “You know, gin martini lovers are a sort of freemasonry or mafia in the world.” The gin martini lovers share their drinking experiences, because unlike with cognac or whiskey (“You ask for a whiskey, they pour you a whiskey”), the distribution of a martini can vary, he explains as he uses his hands to mimic the mixing of liquids. “The paramount case of martini is the one which you put ice, gin and the beam of light passing through,” he says. It’s the first of many jokes he’ll crack during our conversation. The gin martini’s been his drink for years and years, but he’s now finding it a little strong. “I was following the rule by which one is not enough, three are too much,” he says. In our meeting, which lasts just shy of an hour, he doesn’t even finish the one.

Eco’s in New York now and will appear in conversation with NYU film-studies professor Antonio Monda at Barnes and Noble at Union Square tonight. He will continue on to Toronto and London to promote “The Prague Cemetery,” a novel with three different narrative voices that explores the origins of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the anti-Semitic forgery that was disseminated and used by Nazis, among other groups.

“I have always been interested, as a semiotician, in lies,” Eco says. Indeed, Eco first made his name as an essayist, semiotician, professor and philosopher, before he turned to novel-writing. “There are many forgeries that produced a historical reality. The Protocols are the most terrible because they produced what they produced, but also the most interesting because they are a collage of different sources. I define them as the Frankenstein monster made up of parts of different corpses.”

Eco has written about the Protocols numerous times, both in his fiction and academic essays, but he said at a certain point, he thought it would be more compelling to tell the story of their concoction narratively.

To that end, in “The Prague Cemetery,” Eco concocts a unique narrative – splitting it into three different voices: We begin with the passerby, whose voice is closest to third person omniscient. Then we are in the head of Capt. Simone Simonini, a 19th century forger and anti-Semite, who may or may not be the same person as the third narrative voice, a mysterious priest named Abbé Della Piccola.

In the book, the anti-Semitic character of Simonini makes observations that would make most readers squirm. “Yes, it is possible that some reader is troubled, that was the position taken by one Rabbi in Rome, saying I like the book but somebody could take it seriously,” Eco says. “My answer was, any young person of 12 years, by pushing a button can find all this on Internet.” Of readers’ possible discomfort, Eco adds, “I wanted to do that. Otherwise I could have told another story, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ I wanted to make the reader uncomfortable. Somebody has to do that.”

Eco says the main narrator is the third person omniscient, and Simonini and Della Piccola are characters. “The narrator himself is reliable, he’s a sort of neutral eye that reads what Simonini writes down,” he says. “I confess that I was obliged to invent it in order to summarize what happened in two years. And so it was goodwill on my part to have the reader interpret it in three different characters, to help my reader.” It also helped him write the book. “At a certain moment yourself, you get lost in the labyrinth of the narrative,” he says.

The novel is constructed like a feuilleton, with an introduction of a neutral passerby, illustrations, a complicated structure and adventure plot. Growing up as a child, Eco read feuilletons by Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue. The feuilletons changed with the times, Eco says, in particular the French feuilletons were progressive and almost eliminated by a tax levied by Napoleon III. In the second half of the century, feuilletons turned reactionary.

“You cannot evaluate the feuilleton as a unique phenomenon,” Eco says. “He responded to different requests of the society, which has nothing to do with the fact if it was well written or not.” Here he points to “Mystères de Paris” by Eugène Sue, which he says is virtually unreadable now, but which had a strong political influence at the time of publication. He then looks at Dumas: “The Three Musketeers” he calls well-written, “like mere jazz…ba-ba-da-da-da-da!”  but “The Count of Monte Cristo” he says is “horribly written,” and because Dumas was paid per line, he exaggerated the story’s length. “But even though it was badly written, he created the myth,” Eco says.

The equivalent of feuilletons today are detective novels, in Eco’s eyes, many of which he reads himself for leisure. “I find all of them, they’re all the same. They’re doing their best to reach the 400 pages, otherwise it’s not a bestseller. Why were Simenon or Christie able to do it in 100 pages?” he says.

“The Prague Cemetery,” like his other books, took the author six years to write. The only exceptions were “Foucault’s Pendulum,” which took him eight years, and “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” which took him slightly less long because he had all the childhood reference books on his own shelves (and they’re still there). For his latest novel, he roamed the streets of Paris, where he keeps an apartment, and studied where old restaurants and streets once stood. “Walking through the city to find out the remnants, it’s fascinating for me,” he says. “It’s the only reason why I write a novel.”

Follow Barbara Chai on Twitter @barbarachai





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