Umberto Eco’s novels have been widely admired for their blend of erudite scholarship and satisfying, page-turning plots. His latest book, The Prague Cemetery, continues this tradition by placing a fictional character by the name of Simonini in the midst of a real, historical milieu and giving him a significant, sinister place in nineteenth-century history and beyond. Simonini, an equal-opportunity hater of ethnicities, races, and religions, is a master forger and plays an important role in crafting the “conspiracies” of his time, most importantly the document that becomes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I spoke to Eco about the novel, just now being published in the US, on the phone from Italy.
The Prague Cemetery is your sixth novel. Do you find it becomes easier to write a new book at this point in your career? Does it become harder to find new subjects to interest you?
Every time that I write a novel I am convinced for at least two years that it is the last one, because a novel is like a child. It takes two years after its birth. You have to take care of it. It starts walking, and then speaking. In two months I will be eighty years old. Probably I will not write another novel, and so mankind will be safe.
Did you enjoy writing this particular book?
Less than the others. For me, the process of writing usually takes six years. In those years I collect material, I write, I rewrite. I am in a sort of a private world of myself with my characters. I don’t know what will happen. I discover it step by step. And I become very sad when the novel is finished because there is no more pleasure, no more surprise.
With this novel, the material I was dealing with was so ugly that I felt a lot of embarrassment. I had to create an absolutely ugly character, a repugnant character, which can certainly be a challenge for a writer. Fortunately some of my colleagues had done the same. Shakespeare for instance, with Richard III.
You said in your Paris Review interview in 2008, “When you imagine a character, you lend him or her some of your personal memories. You give part of yourself to character number one and another part to character number two.” That made me wonder if it was difficult to write a character like Simonini, who has such despicable and difficult views.
Yes, but, you know, every time you are on the highway and another driver does something irritating, you could kill him. So when you have to invent somebody who hates other people, you can find the origin in your belly. In the worst part of you.
I also endowed Simonini with a lot of clichés already in existence. You know, I just came back from Germany, and they gave public readings of the novel, and they read the section at the beginning ranting against Germans. And then I was obliged to explain, “Listen, I didn’t invent anything!” The first part, about the defecatory habits of the Germans, was written by a Frenchman at the beginning of the First World War for nationalistic purposes. He wanted to defame Germans. The last part was taken from Nietzsche, who was an anti-German German. We have people around us who are nurturing and sharing these clichés. It’s easy to build up a negative character because our real life is full of negative characters.
Your note to the reader in The Prague Cemetery says that the reader will “look anxiously behind him, switch on all the lights, and suspect that these things could happen again today. In fact, they may be happening in that very moment.” What were you thinking of in terms of contemporary parallels to this plot, if any?
It is clear that when you write a story that takes place in the past you try to show what really happened in those times. But you are always moved by the suspicion that you are also showing something about our contemporary world.
Take a lot of WikiLeaks papers. I was very amused because I published the novel in Italy one year ago, exactly one month before the WikiLeaks affair blew up. Simonini is a forger, and understands that in order to tell secret information to a secret service you always have to tell what is already known. Otherwise they will not believe you. From what I have seen, all the WikiLeaks communications sent by the American embassies to Hillary Clinton were just saying exactly what was published in Newsweek the week before! So you see that there is a sometimes a slight difference between fiction and reality.
What is it about forgery that interests you? It is a running theme throughout so much of your work.
I have been interested in it for at least thirty or forty years, in part because I am a scholar of the problems of language and communication. And to lie is a typical human activity, sometimes more important than telling the truth. Because of lies we can produce and invent a possible world. And in order to understand whether something is a language or not, you have to see whether it can be used to lie. If so, it’s a language. A dog steals your food and hides, but he does not tell you it was another dog.
I was interested in the Protocols not only because is it an important forgery, but because of the tragedy that it contributed to. It was in 1921 that the Times of London proved that they were fake. And after that they were more and more believed and published everywhere. So I was interested by such a phenomenon. Why were they so successful? The answer is that they were not creating new ideas. They were reinforcing previous prejudices.
Alexander Dumas is an important character in the book and the spirit of his books pervades the novel. Is he an important writer to you as a novelist?
I first read him in my youth. I was always fascinated by the nineteenth-century popular novels. In the book I created a sort of imitation or parody of these novels by choosing illustrations from novels of that era and by starting the story in the typical style of the nineteenth-century novel.
I saw that many of the illustrations came from your personal collection. Did the pictures in any way inspire the writing?
No, I collected the illustrations after having written the book, and I went to pains to find the right illustration for the right page. But obviously I had in mind the illustrations of those books. Except for the anti-Semitic material: for that I collected new material. Because the illustrations play a double role. On one side, there are illustrations referring to popular novels, so the reader says, “Ah, this is like a popular novel.” But suddenly there are real documents, anti-Semitic magazines, or a portrait of a real person. It should produce a shock, that this is not a fiction, there is something true about the characters. The illustrations have an oscillatory function, they create a double feeling.
I was reading the vivid descriptions of Garibaldi in battle and I was wondering how you composed them—how much of it came from historical sources and how much came from your imagination?
I should confess that except for the figure of Simonini, who committed too many crimes to be possible, and to whom I’ve attributed the crimes of different persons, everything is a quotation, or at least a paraphrase of something that was told at that moment. Apropos of Garibaldi, there are, even after all this time, a lot of debates in Italy. There is the pro-risorgimento literature in which Garibaldi is a splendid hero, and the anti-risorgimento literature, which sees the expedition of Garibaldi as a kind of colonial invasion of Sicilia, and Garibaldi as a brigand. My book appeared just when Italy was celebrating the sesquicentennial of its creation as a nation, and everyone was thinking about that, but I wrote those pages five years ago without imagining that it would be published at that moment.
There are some beautiful descriptions of food in the book. Do you cook or are you particularly interested in food?
No, I am a McDonald’s person. I am joking! But in this case, I gave Simonini food instead of sex. And I gave it in enormous quantities. The names of the dishes are so beautiful, even from a linguistic point of view, that a lot of people fell in love with those foods.
You mentioned in your earlier Paris Review interview a number of television shows that you enjoyed. Is there anything recent on television or in the wider popular culture that has caught your eye?
Here in Italy trash television is invading the screen. It is very painful to watch. You know, I started to work in television for three or four years, in 1954. There was one channel of television, black and white. But it could be entertaining and educational. During the evening they showed important plays, opera or Shakespeare’s tragedies. Today, especially on the Berlusconi television, you see only porno material. So I am more pessimistic than before. Sometimes after eleven o’clock you can find something interesting. But normal people go to sleep at eleven o’clock.