Posted by: jbwuk | February 27, 2012

Umberto Eco, student of human error and stupidity

Jewish Book Week was closed out with a fascinating hour’s conversation between journalist David Aaronovitch and the remarkable Italian thinker and novelist, Umberto Eco. 

The conversation centred on Eco’s latest bestselling novel, The Prague Cemetery, which sets out on a remarkable ‘true-story’ journey through the high geopolitics and low-life backstreets of 19th-century European history, from Garibaldi’s Thousand to the Paris Comune to the Dreyfus Affair (there’s even a walk-on part for a young Dr Freud). 

            As Eco explained, every act and statement, document and image, character and turn-of-events in The Prague Cemetery draws on his five years of  research and his immense collection of books and period paraphernalia and is demonstrably true.  But ‘true story’ isn’t quite the right label and ’19th-century historical novel’ doesn’t quite capture it either. Because Eco’s main character, Simonini, who dominates every page of the book, is an outrageous grotesque, a pure invention, the distillation of evil trickery in its most modern manifestation: the genius-forger. Aaronovitch suggested he has never met a character in fiction who was quite such a ‘bastard’, and Eco was happy to agree.

            As for the historical novel, well Eco and Simonini’s aim was to show how the facts of history are a game of mirrors, that history is forged, as much as by wars and high principles, by fakes, tricks and the rank prejudices that lie within us. Eco explained to his Jewish Book Week audience that, if love was a noble ideal, it works by cutting out the rest of the world – I love you and you alone, and no one else must love you. Hatred, though, is the most ‘generous’ and contagious of passions – I happily share my hatred with all who will listen and hope they will join me in it. Simonini – the spirit of his age – is driven by an all-consuming misanthropy and, above all else and always, by a hatred of the Jews.  

            Simonini’s life work, his masterpiece, as Eco imagines it, is his authorship of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the founding document of conspiracy theories about a Jewish plot to take over the world, which circulated and still circulates all over the world, much loved by everyone from Hitler to Ahmeninajad. And this despite being definitively shown up as a fake by the London Times in 1921. Aaronovitch, himself the author of a study of conspiracy theories up to 9/11, pushed Eco on this, taking him to his second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. Asked about the strange coincidence of plot and conspiracies between that book and the later Da Vinci Code, Eco gently suggested that Dan Brown must have been one of the characters he had invented for Foucault’s Pendulum, since Brown seemed to have fallen hook, line and sinker for all the fascination with fakes and mysterious hokum that get the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum  into such trouble.

            Eco , who is now 80 years old, is a remarkably astute and inventive student of human error and stupidity, of how the most ridiculous prejudices take hold of us as gossip and hearsay, and find the stories to fit them anywhere they look. The conversation ended on a call for a new form of education in the face of the internet: a sort of instruction manual on how to sort out the real conspiracies from the hokum. We could do worse than start with Eco’s own novels.

Robert Gordon teaches Italian literature and cultural history at Cambridge University.  His book on the Holocaust in Italian Culture is out later this year

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