Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, 1988, Harcourt Brace Jovanovish
With all the brouhaha swirling around Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code these last several years, I’m really surprised that no one has been touting Foucault’s Pendulum as their next film project. Eco’s book is more the Anti-Da Vinci Code, with secret societies, the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, coded manuscripts, Rosicrucians, Kaballah, ancient secrets, dark conspiracies, etc., still driving the mystery, but with more irony and satire, and a decidedly different conclusion. Eco even tosses in a Lovecraftian reference to a Cthulhu Cult, a show of respect that Brown avoids. (And let’s not forget, Foucault’s Pendulum was written almost 20 years before Brown cobbled together his mega-bestseller.)
The two books also share the idea that people really want and perhaps need to believe in something beyond this world, though the authors take diametrically opposed views to the benefits thus provided. Whereas both protagonists unravel mysteries and discover secrets, Eco’s hero uncovers something far more terrible (or possibly, more beautiful, depending on your own beliefs) than Robert Langdon could ever imagine
I admit, it’s only by a stretch that I can classify the book as an Occult Detective entry; it is indeed about the occult and occultism, and there is a good deal of detective work involved, but the heroes are are not dedicated to either pursuit. There are no Carnackis or John Constantine’s here, just ordinary guys with the ordinary fault of being too clever for their own good.
The story is simple enough: three friends, two of which work for a vanity publisher, have read so many ridiculous, badly written, poorly thought out manuscripts relating various occult histories and theories, that they decide, as a game, to do the job right. All have knowledge of various aspects of esoteric lore. Using a word-processor (remember, this was written in the 1980s) with a program that will create new text from randomly inserted key words, they create “The Plan,” an elaborate mash-up of occult tropes that supposedly leads to the key to world domination. They also create their own ancient secret society, Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici, or Tres. This fiction becomes a game for the trio, the details of which are worked out over a period of years. Like all good occult conspiracy theories, this involves the descendants of the Templars, a secret map and an object of great occult power, in this case, Foucault’s pendulum, which is on exhibit in Paris. (Lost fans will recognize the pendulum from its appearance in Elizabeth Hawkings’ lab.)
Unfortunately for them, as an extension of the joke, they step over the line when they leak the plan to Aglié, a man who hints that he is the immortal Comte de St. Germain. He and his occult wingnuts fall for the gag (ha-ha) but the plan backfires when it becomes clear ‘they’ are willing to kill (uh-oh) for information handed down by more ancient masters than you can shake a stick at. Now in fear for their lives, the three men find themselves wondering if they perhaps they have indeed stumbled on to some Secret Knowledge. That the existence of “the Plan” is accepted so readily, with no evidence, is one of the key points of the novel, the frightening truth that there are people in the world who believe what they read in the Weekly World News. One of the best scenes in the book comeswhen the narrator, Casubon, shares the mysterious coded document which he and the others used to kick-start their game with is girl friend, and she can just as credibly decode it as a laundry list.
By turns enthralling, tedious, fabulous and frustrating, it is an almost impossible book to describe in any greater detail without getting involved in the wealth of detail which forms the background of the book. It’s an accurate summation in the same way as boiling Moby Dick down to a story about a whale and an obsessed captain. Foucault’s Pendulum is almost more valuable as a compendium of occult history and thought than a story, even as interesting as it is. Every chapter opens with a lengthy quote from one ancient occult text or another. Either Eco did an enormous amount of research on this subject, or he is even better at making up fictional arcane books than the entire Lovecraft Circle put together. I lean towards the former.
If you’re used to Dan Brown’s meat-and-potatoes style, Eco will likely be a slog, though I think a worthwhile one. He doesn’t wire neon lights on his themes, and the themes themselves are not steel-planked as they are in pulp fiction. The world is a complex place, and Eco seems to have little patience with his mental inferiors. I’ve never read The Name of the Rose, but I’ve heard that the first 100 or so pages are intentionally tedious, both to convey the experience of being a monk in Medieval times and to discourage readers who aren’t willing to work at reading. No beach reads here.
On the downside, I accept the fact the Eco is much smarter than I will ever be, but I wish he wouldn’t rub my nose in it so much. His philosophical points -and he is a philosopher first, a writer second- assume a great deal of familiarity with some very fine points of thought that I just don’t have, and he likes to insert dialogue and quotes from books in their original languages, without benefit of a translation. Italian, Latin, 14th century French — let’s face it, he runs in different circles than I do. You can find the translations online now, but in 1988 you were on your own. It’s hard to love a book that requires a separate post-doctorate degree just to understand it.
But if you’re a fan of this sort of stuff, as I most assuredly am, it is a wonderful change of pace to read a challenging, dense, original, thought provoking piece of fiction, one that refuses to talk down to its readers, one that treats the material seriously rather than an excuse for parading the old cliches out in modern dress. Eco is in many ways what Lovecraft dreamed of being, an artist, who writes for himself rather than money, and who, though he would like your company, isn’t bothered if you choose not to follow along.