Finished Foucault’s Pendulum

Umberto Eco is a geek.

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is a geek. A professor of semiotics, Eco certainly researched every symbol and sign of Middle Eastern and Western occult societies for his novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. Then he disgorged them over the course of 600 pages with the detail and admiration of one enamored of the subject matter. Like a character from the tv show, Big Bang Theory, he has the most esoteric minutiae at the ready. This trait can be illuminating to some readers while leaving others bewildered.

The story centers on three Italian editors working for a vanity press. Casaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi read countless manuscripts submitted by crackpots who claim to have discovered the true secret of the Knights Templar or other groups imputed with great power and nefarious agendas. Then one day a Colonel Ardenti comes to their office, claiming to have unearthed proof of a plot devised by the Templars. Inspired, the three devise a story to explain the secret history of the world, incorporating Ardenti’s discovery and the anything else they can lay their hands on.

Like a melange made with whatever ingredients can be had in the pantry of their collective knowledge, the trio throw in Bacon, the Masons, the Jesuits, the Rosicrucians, Cabalists and more. The recipe is called the Plan and those who find out its secret will have untold power. Unfortunately, the Plan is real — real enough that people like Ardenti go missing and the lives of the three editors are imperiled.

The complexity of the novel is breathtaking and I don’t know how Eco had kept it all straight. I can imagine it had been fun to conceive and write the story. It is the ultimate conspiracy theory because it contains all the conspiracy theories threaded together. But so much of the novel, perhaps all but the last 150 pages, are about conceiving the Plan. There isn’t much of a story when danger comes. Less so a thriller and more of a philosophical exercise, I think much of it is over my head. I can see that Eco is criticizing conspiracy theorists in general. How connections that don’t exist are tenuously joined by the theorist because he wants there to be. It’s an easy game to play, linking events or people together by numerology or shared initials or geography. Like psychics who throw out enough vague words that can mean anything to anyone, letting the listener fill in the rest.

Have you read it? What do you think?

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