book-reviews

Foucault's Pendulum

by Umberto Eco (tr. William Weaver)

Rating: ★★★★

I've read one other Eco novel, Baudilino. That novel, in a medieval setting, focused on the hazy nature of truth, and Foucault's Pendulum does something similar for post-war Italy, though they take very different tacks. Whereas Baudilino focused on problems with unreliable narration, Foucault's Pendulum delves into the strange blend of truth, fiction and illogic that persists throughout the long traditions of European occultism.

Much of the book describes the setting of a trap. Three editors: a writer, a numerologist and a historian, get together to discuss a draft of a crank's book on a secret occult society founded by the Templars. The author reveals a secret manuscript which is the basis of his book, and then goes missing under suspicious circumstances. Nothing much comes of this, and the characters drift apart. One of them runs into an educated initiate in South America, and reads up on the Templars and the Rosicrucian orders which follow. He attends some local mystical rites out of curiosity, but doesn't buy into it.

Reunited in Europe, the trio end up working on a project involving a catalogue of conspiracy theories, and start to satirically construct their own version based on their accumulated knowledge of the area. What starts out as a bit of fun starts to draw more and more of their time -- even as they acknowledge that they're making the whole thing up, they revel in finding connections between various historical facts. As they continue in their invention, they start to feel like the connections they find are real. Eventually, an outsider interested in the occult hears of the secret truth they have invented, and the occult initiates seek to wrest it from the editors, convinced it is real.

Eco excels at detailing their conspiracy-building, blending together surprisingly factual snippets from history with leaps of logic and motivated reasoning, editing and twisting components so that the final impenetrable product looks nothing like the original. Along the way he keeps his characters grounded -- they don't 'go mad', or even really believe the fiction they've invented, they just get caught up by it and the escape it offers. He also manages to slip in larger parallels -- one component of the histories they draw on is a man who did exactly the same thing, publishing an occult suggestion and then having to deny that it was really him. My main criticism would be that of the conspiracy gets quite tiring to read -- there is only so much muddled reasoning a person can stomach.

Something of a counter-toxin to the briefly-popular Dan Brown novels, Foucault's Pendulum dissects the occult mindset in detail. Good reading for anyone who's being sucked in by the mystique of these groups, or anyone who loves to ironically dabble in Kabbalah or numerology.