Guilty Pleasure

June 18, 2012

I’d been reading Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery recently. He’s one of my favorite writers, although I remain relatively alone in my general circle of friends in my appreciation of him. So reading this novel, which would ordinarily be a demanding literary activity, seemed even more solitary, more isolated and fragmented…a perspective not at all out of context with the work itself. It is after all a historical fiction about historical fictions and fictionalized histories. If the center of a horror story is intimacy with fear, the emotional center of this novel is misapprehension of lies.
I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde one night in a rented room on the top floor of an old house. There was a miserable cold thunderstorm too early in fall for heat, so I sat bundled up in sweaters sipping tea and terror. The physical atmosphere aligned enough with the tone of the text that my experience of this too frequently overlooked tale was enhanced, personalized. A shared version of Jekyll & Hyde became mine. I don’t believe there’s anything in Stevenson’s other work that approaches that level of unconscious brilliance. I traveled to Edinburgh, Berwick, even the Firth of Forth and enjoyed the superimpositions of literature on geography. “He could have been the basis for Dr. Livesay.”,“This could be the inspiration for Admiral Benbow Inn, so let’s stop for a pint”, or “this rocky terrain of is exactly described in Kidnapped” and so on. It was as the Brits call it, “a pleasant day [trip]”. The adventure books never appealed to me all that much, even as a boy. I was fascinated by the dramatic N.C. Weyth color illustrations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped in my Junior Classics editions. I never wanted to search for treasure chests. I wanted to travel in Mr. Hyde’s dank, humid, filthy fog to demand entry at the disfigured back door of the L shaped Victorian house.
I read Prague Cemetery sporadically over three months, mostly in bed battling drowsiness trying to get to the end of a chapter, or struggling to keep what had happened before in some order during “The Daily Show”. It isn’t a pleasant book; a few times I was about to abandon it. The structure is self-conscious and demanding. Like much of Eco’s work, the limits of my knowledge of history and linguistics were forcibly ‘opened’. In an apt coincidence decades ago I encountered the work of Umberto Eco as an academic proponent of Semiotics when I promoted a workshop on the future of alternative theories of learning. It was probably the most precocious confab of 1981, at least in Alief, TX. While it padded my résumé, I don’t think it improved my standing in the school district. I was employed elsewhere before the next January…which would also be absolutely appropriate with semiotics and alternative learning theory. The reader has to personally engage with text and interpret it through their own experience. Besides, who actually gets called on to make a real sacrifice in the realm of literary theory?
However having worked through Eco’s other novels and essays (I highly recommend Six Walks in A Fictional Woods.) I believed I was prepared to drift around shadow secret societies, Jesuit conspiracies , Freemason signs, plots to protect the reputation of the Papacy, schemes to revise the ancient past, arcane architecture and allusions to philosophical ambiguities. The late Middle Ages please me. One of my professors in graduate school described me as “bound to the medieval world by an iron cable”. (It’s an awkward phrase to carry on one one’s transcript believe me.) But what I find attractive about Eco’s novels isn’t merely his intricate mastery of time or place, or his ability to invest his fiction with philosophical knowledge by casual detail. It is the novel’s anticipation for me, as a reader, to participate beyond following the direction of the plot. I don’t read his novels as much as I rent a room in them.
Eco’s fiction, like Proust, Borges, Kafka, or David Foster Wallace, demands commitment beyond character analysis or literary exegesis in order for the reader to achieve comprehension. There is no genuine resolution or dénouement. Unlike Jekyll & Hyde, Poole won’t close up their doctor’s cabinets, nor are all the details accounted for in a final letter… there’s more cleaning up after the denoument. In reading Eco seldom do I have that pedagogic sense that I possess the author’s purpose, or I could choose the correct response out of a set of class essays on the novel’s theme. Ultimately the events of the novel meet the requirements of an ending, but they don’t conclude. The reader must personally try bringing their text relationship to closure, or continue living with it. Some novels are like tarot cards. Read, as Italo Calvino suggested, not as the tools of charlatan psychics, but a deck of infinite possible stories, each capable of weaving together past and future, interior desire and exterior struggle into an illusory present of meanings.
It’s a difficult pleasure.
I’ve been in the same book club for thirty years. Members change and our selections have generally been more demanding than Oprah’s, but occasionally I’m forced to live with a book I despise. Thoughtless writing, obvious themes and devices, and writers who seem content to drag their readers up and down Freytag’s Pyramid like tourists. I read these books out of obligation to my friends, complain during the discussions, and enjoy the food afterwards. This is a form of social literature that allows us to express an acceptable level of societal distress without much social obligation or consequence. What sane person could read a novel about a suffering child, an old elephant, or a Nazi refugee and imagine an alternative theme that resolves in anything other than pathos? We safely nibble at outrage, but never near the level that would even bring someone to leave before dessert.
So, I was slowly, wending my sporadic reading through The Prague Cemetery. Simone Simonini, the main character and sometime voice, is unredeemable. He is an asocial document forger who speaks in two separate, but equally unsavory voices that appear to be partially aware, but not directly in contact with each other, in a sort of partially omniscient second person. An omniscient, but not altogether forthcoming, narrator guides the story into scenes containing genuine historical characters and introduces actual events and documents, but only tenuously, as if he too may be a projected film of fiction. The text is populated with unpleasant characters performing despicable acts mostly to devise, revise, steal, trade, promote and sell false documents. No one changes. To continue reading the reader must become invested in fiction about lies, half-truths, allusions, misinterpretations and specious conclusions with less ethical concern than an overdue undergraduate paper. But at the center of the novel is not clever and specious dross, but “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, conceivably the most evil written conflation in modern history. What binds the novel together is my willingness to endure intimacy with a suspended belief in a history of real consequences. Simonini is the only invented character. The novel relentlessly slogs through actual anti-Semitic texts, letters, brochures, lectures, notebooks, and conversations with such matter of fiction ease, that when murdered bodies are abandoned in sewers, the stench is hardly noticeable.
What escapist pleasures I had hoped for in reading Prague Cemetery escaped me. Not infrequently I felt guilty while reading. Initially I thought I might recommend The Prague Cemetery to our book club, but found the process of reading so personally offensive that I didn’t want to strain the tolerance of the Jewish members of the group for a casual discussion. The Holocaust remains; book club is just a theme party. Rationally why would I ask anyone to live in this morass of insult for four hundred and forty-four pages?
Difficult pleasures indeed.
In 1976 Americans painted fire hydrants red, white and blue to celebrate the Bi-Centennial. At the time I was feeling Whitmanish in my patriotic display, sort of the 1855 frontispiece. of the roughs. You know the photograph; that was me. Municipal fireworks displays were common competitions and free as summer weather. Benny Goodman played a concert I listened to on banks of the Ohio River. Stars and Stripes Forever. I drove my Volkswagen Beetle to visit my family in Ohio. I was going to eat hot dogs burned on our grill, tell jokes and enjoy pointless conversations about sports. It was a time to try to salve some of the scars the Viet Nam War had left. It was a celebration of the myth of history, of its capacity to restore spiritual commonwealth. It was the day before “Morning in America”.
Grandma Hetner called me into her living room where we could talk alone. She offered me a $100 bill to shave my beard. As I contemplated her surprising offer she sweetened her tonsorial proposal by adding “Your face isn’t bad. You don’t have pock marks. People will think you look like a Jew.”
My grandfather learned his trade from Al Linder, a Jewish baker whom he referred to as “Mister Linder” for eighty years. Aunt Dora’s husband, my Uncle Al, was Jewish and we loved to visit him. Our parish church shared the same city block as a synagogue. Their back alley and our back alley were connected and glistened with same broken bottles the winos smashed away. The woman I lived with when I graduated college was Jewish, and my family trusted her more than me. As far as I knew, my Grandmother had never had a bad experience with anyone Jewish, but she scurried around inside her superstitious fears. In a generous spirit I’d like to believe that she made her offer out of some fear for my possible persecution, but I doubt it. I was as fearless and lucky as a college graduate is at twenty-five. I grew up in easy rebellion and had a history annoying all kinds of people, bigots and racists included. To me her fears seemed like an archeological discovery, ancient, malevolent and congenitally buried in parts of our family I hadn’t suspected existed.  In one sentence I began my descent from a family of anti-Semites.
Around 1910, prior to the 1918 Czechoslovakian Alliance, my great grandparents emigrated from the coal seams of Slovakia to the coal seams of Pennsylvania. They were part of the 500,000 Slovaks who immigrated to the United States prior to the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. That law codified the Emergency Quota system and National Origins Act established in 1921. Hearings on the legislation noted the influx of “immigrants and Jews who could never be assimilated” and a desire “to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population”. As a result after 1924 Slovak immigration was restricted to 600 persons per year. Eastern and Southern Europeans became identified “undesirables”. They were regarded as dirty, useful only for labor and genetically beneath native born Americans. In the four year period between the Emergency Quota Act and Johnson-Reed Act defining the national American identity as ‘white’ became a political Juggernaut. Displays of patriotism weren’t restricted to bunting.
The Palmer Raids arrested 2,700 radicals and communists in 33 US cities, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified making alcohol illegal, immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were famously arrested and tried for murder, Charles Ponzi an Italian immigrant was arrested for inventing the Ponzi Scheme, the state capitol building of West Virginia caught fire igniting thousands of rounds of ammunition stockpiled on the top floor in preparation for coal mine ‘disturbances’, 10,000 white men rioted in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma killing between 200-300 African-Americans and burning 35 blocks of property, 53 African-Americans were lynched in 1920, 59 in 1921, 51 in 1922 while a Federal anti-lynching law was killed by a Senate filibuster, John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution, the Ku Klux Klan claimed a membership between three and six million, California passed and several other states enacted Alien Land Laws prohibiting land sales to any “alien ineligible for citizenship”. The land of the free was redefining American identity as WASP.
In 1923 my grandmother gave birth to my mother.
What her parents must have taught her, even unconsciously, as a child, and what she would have learned from her own experience was that any government can take anything. Any group of people can reveal sudden, violent betrayals, and prejudice and persecution happen anywhere and have no real limits. The price of safety was silence, conformity, and the masquerade of mobility. And it is always better to survive.
The year my mother learned her first words Hitler published “Mein Kampf”. Then, as now, the world was heading towards cataclysm.
Romantically World War I ended in the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was to be imprisoned in 30 billion dollars of reparations debt and the Czechoslovakian Alliance was formed out of the eastern portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But by 1938 the alliance was dissolved into the Sudetenland and a remainder state of Czecho-Slovakia. Both Hungary and Poland planned to annex portions of Slovakia. After negotiating the Munich Agreement with Germany, the First Slovak Republic was formed under the motto, ”Slovakia for the Slovaks”. It became a protectorate of the Third Reich. 50,000 soldiers of the Slovak Army were part of the German Blitzkrieg into Poland. The Slovak Republic was one of the first German influenced states to adopt Jewish Codes reflecting those already enacted in Nazi Germany. Before the Jews could be deported from Slovakia and murdered, it had to be first established who was a Jew. Jozef Kischbaum, the Secretary General of the Hlinka Guard, described them “…some were visibly obvious, what with their beards and kaftans. Others – especially atheists, or those who had changed their religion, or had lived in mixed marriages – were less visible…” Between 1939 and 1945, under the leadership of Prime Minister Monsignor Josef Tiso and the Hlinka Guard, between 75,000-100,000 men, women and children, 80% of the Jewish population, were deported, primarily to Auschwitz, murdered and their property confiscated.
Sometimes beards can grow much longer than they seem.
For three months in 1944 the Slovak army resisted German occupation and was then destroyed. Slovakia was abandoned as a protectorate capable of “Aryanization”. Einstazgruppen H then directed the Hlinka Guard in the accelerated arrests and deportations of Slovak Jews and Roma as the Russians approached. Following World War II 80,000 Hungarians and 20,000 Germans were forcibly relocated out of Slovakia. Monsignor Tiso was hanged for Nazi collaboration by the occupying Russian forces. Jozef Kirschbaum worked as an Allied Forces agent and then escaped to Canada. While the time scale was faster and the casualties higher, that type of hapless politics and failed collaboration wasn’t atypical of Slovak history.
Slovakia is 49,000 square miles, approximately the size of Pennsylvania. In about 3BC the area that is currently Slovakia was occupied as a frequently violated frontier of the Roman Empire, and subsequently it was a violated frontier of the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Great Moravian Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Hungarian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t be too difficult to devise a revisionist apologetic political history for the Slovaks collaboration with the Nazis. Things have seldom gone well for the people inhabiting the upper portion of the Carpathian Basin. For centuries their homes have been the battlefields where invasions entered, met resistance, reformed, counter-attacked, occupied territory and eventually deteriorated into retreat. It was a good place to have a secret cache of food or weapons, but not so good for raising children.
Which brings me back to Gramma.
The fears of my great-grandparents weren’t unfounded; they were terrible and real, perhaps in a scope beyond their abilities to consciously define. They bumped along in the dark, in some ways like the struggle of this essay to find expression. They must have invented forms for their fears below the surface of their lives, immigrant lives that were exponentially alien and traumatic. Leaving their experiences in Europe, they had no real language to express their experiences in America beyond that sotto voce suspicion and hope that inflects so much of the speech of immigrants and refugees. They had no literature for how quickly and completely anyone or anything could vanish, no old proverb to explain vanishing could be a means of survival…to survive you must tossed into the melting pot. Survival, however expensive or distasteful, is a lesson anyone would impart to their children.
Contemplating my heritage as an anti-Semite has become tantamount to Freudian self-help analysis (Freud is also a character in Prague Cemetery). I tried to recollect anything my Grandmother had said about Jews, or for that matter Slovaks. Diplomacy wasn’t her strong suit, so I assumed if she had feelings, she would have expressed them at least partially.
We are Slovaks, not Czech. 

That was as much opinion as Gramma expressed about the shadow history of our place in the ‘old country’. Gramma and Grandpa Hetner made a trip to New York City with two daughters and three grandchildren the summer of the 1964 World’s Fair. We all stayed in Jersey City in a rooming house recommended as safe by a relative who we never met, but my grandmother wore her church clothes to visit while we waited. That was as close a connection with Slovakia as I knew. Her parents could have been political refugees from the Austro Hungarian Empire, criminals escaping the law, or star-crossed lovers. No one said why they really left.
Slovakia for the Slovaks? By Gramma’s distinction I was disinherited from Kafka and Rilke. And from Prague, that was the location of the subject cemetery. It was the home of the Talmudic scholar and mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who wrote theological treatises and met with Emperor Rudolph II. Even today he’s known as the Maharal of Prague and legendarily associated with the Golem. The Golem although never evidentially linked to the Rabbi by published scholarship, was rumored to reside in his attic. The Golem appeared more closely associated with the Maharal the longer he was dead. The Maharal died in 1605 and was indeed buried in that old Prague cemetery, but by the mid-nineteenth century both the Maharal of Prague and the Golem were increasingly active in European literature and folklore. He appears in an early fabricated source of ‘The Protocols’, “The Dialogue in Hell” by Maurice Joly, which describes a midnight meeting of rabbis around the gravestone of the Maharal of Prague discussing plans for world domination. The Golem has continued in a varied career in novels, short stories, poems, films, graphic novels, comics and even an appearance on “The Simpsons”. Strangely only a legitimately fictional character like a golem can maintain its ethics, or a life of its own.
They told us not to peek in the synagogue windows, because Jews eat Christian babies.

Blood Libel!? It took some serious recollecting before that bite of horror regurgitated. Blood libel was the belief Jews used the blood of Christian children for rituals. Did my own grandmother actually say that? She never joked or played, so I always assumed she was serious. But I can’t say anything about the depth of her belief. And what was it… a juicy slice of her history that drifted back perhaps two or three generations for her? Someplace as vague for my great-grandparents as the imaginary circumstances I’m trying to find, and coincidentally the time period of The Prague Cemetery. Blood libel was an accusation common in the Ukrainian and Russian pogroms at the turn of the 20th century.
The events of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents infect my interpretation of The Prague Cemetery, but differenlyt than the experience of my paternal grandparents, from Italy, who may have unconsciously influenced my affectation for Umberto Eco. I don’t arrive at that mysterious cemetery in Prague without my own history of mis-readings and private lexicon of fears and superstitions to describe my unknown or unacknowledged fears. I just haven’t composed that narrative, yet. It’s one of those revelations that could make a therapist believe they had arrived at new material. Is this real, or is this an implanted memory from reading in a hypnogogic state?  More importantly why do I have a need to feel guilty for something my grandmother may have said fifty years ago?
I survived, because they fled. They brought what they could carry. A rope tied bundle of partial knowledge, dreams, lies, and nightmares dragged across the tabula rasa of a new land. What they brought to us was a life, even with some of the costs paid by those left behind. I did nothing more than follow a pair of forceps to deserve to be born in a small steel town in Ohio. No more deserving of the life I’ve had than the millions of Jews, Roma, Poles, Hungarians and Slavs who were murdered during the Nazi regime, or the victims of the Stalinist purges, Maoist reeducation, or the continuing victims of genocide today. No more than the 10 million men, women and children who were killed to Manifest Destiny. The poem of hatred, torture, murder and exile is endlessly recited.
I’m not sure it’s possible to become over dramatic or emotional writing about the events of the Holocaust. Umberto Eco described a similar struggle in writing The Prague Cemetery. Distaste, guilt, a sense of despair and inescapable entanglement, distress that our world was shaped by those terrible complicated events. In some sense it feels more like grief, than guilt. It’s like a shadow that wakes you and asks what you were crying about in your sleep. It doesn’t leave us unless we promise to pretend to forget. By forgetting my Grandmother the same way I forgot the 125 French verbs I memorized in college, I can end this distress. Then Prague Cemetery becomes no more emotionally demanding than The Name of the Rose; I can vacation in imaginary antiquity.
What separates the events of the Holocaust from the otherwise deplorable history of human persecutions is their modernity. The calculated employment of the forms of mass production, free enterprise and social media alloyed to the sadly unending wellspring of fear, brutality and hatred. At one time The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was second only to the Bible in printed publication. Hitler had it adopted as a textbook in German schools. Henry Ford paid for 500,000 copies to be distributed in the United States. Although it was identified as a plagiarized fabrication by 1921, it was still cited by Franco and Stalin as justification for state policy. It continues to be published and read today.
The Google search algorithm for Protocols of the Elders of Zion will pop up,au second after Wikipedia. Conspiracy abounds on the Internet. Click around and meet the folks from, or If you’d like to see an artless and shrill version of The Prague Cemetery go to “The Coming New World Order”…/world_order.htm many of the same canards are recirculated, this time by Dr. Lorraine Day M.D., a retired surgeon and the wife of former US Representative William Dannemeyer. In her version, President Bush is buried in the grave and then empowered by a cabal to put the precepts of world order into effect. There are other sites that locate the Slovak fugitive war criminal Jozef Kirchbaum as an escort to Pope John Paul II during his 1984 visit to Toronto. A testimony provided by the legendary witness Dr. Rudolf Vrba, who escaped Auschwitz in 1944 and detailed its demonic workings to the rest of the world The sheer volume of conspiracies that bind and dissemble our world is simultaneously dully exhausting and astonishing in its capacity for invention.
I think what ultimately is most distressing about The Prague Cemetery and my psychoanalytic histrionics about my grandmother’s remark is my romantic belief that what we say matters. A hope that even in this Internet laden, YouTubed, misspoken, revised, shock radio, book pulping world, we might be responsible for the consequences of what we say and write, not only what we can be prosecuted for saying…but we’re not.The novel and this essay struggles with the concept that what is said doesn’t remain what’s meant.   Language has become inconsequential. In our world everything that matters can be negotiated or negotiated away. We all live alone in a world of liars.
My ‘open reading’ of The Prague Cemetery, will close when I can decide to stop it, perhaps here. There’s always more work to be done. But as in any relationship the choice isn’t entirely mine. Our tabula rasa can be wiped faster than we imagine. Anyone, even my own grandmother, can be resurrected, made to work like a golem, or forced to whisper false innuendoes or racist epithets.
One hundred dollars was a lot of money.