Being a fan of Umberto Eco’s books, I eagerly awaited the release of The Prague Cemetery in English. I purchased a copy shortly after it hit the shelves and immediately delved into it. The book did not disappoint. In fact, I can say that it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.
The story follows the exploits of one Simone Simonini, an anti-Semite who makes his living forging documents. He becomes enmeshed in a web of conspiracies, creating bogus documents for government agencies and the church. These documents are intended to promote the goals or support the ideals of these entities. All the while, Simonini weaves his anti-Semitic ideologies into the false documents he creates.
The genius of Eco’s book is that nearly all of the characters in the book are historical figures involved in conspiracies and the creation of false documents in the 19th century. For example, Leo Taxil, who created a bogus treaty against Freemasonry, figures prominently in the book. Eco essentially creates a bogus historical document, in journal form, about people who create bogus documents.
The book provides plenty of insights on how misinformation is spread and accepted by the masses. Leo Taxil states: “Man’s principle trait is a readiness to believe anything. Otherwise, how else could the Church have survived for almost two thousand years in the absence of universal gullibility?” (p. 290) He asserts that people will believe almost anything if they feel that the information is coming from a reliable source, basically paying more attention to the messenger than to the message itself.
One of the passages I found interesting concerned the rehashing of fictional information and presenting it instead as truth. It is pointed out that when people read a book, they “quickly forget what they have learned, and when they are told about something they have read in a novel as if it were true, they have just a vague recollection of having heard some mention of it, and their ideas are confirmed.” (p317) As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking about the present-day news media. The media bombards viewers with opinion and gossip. But then what happens, people hear the same “story” repeated later on, and having a vague recollection of having heard it before, readily believe it.
When I finished this book, I couldn’t help wondering how much of what we consider to be history is false, a willful fabrication of information designed to distract people from the truth. Almost like the person who tells a lie so many times that he begins to believe the lie himself. Once a story becomes accepted as true, it is a perception that is difficult to reverse.