In an ongoing campaign to educate myself on the classics across the centuries, I picked up Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum at my local bookstore. There is magic here, wit, and a lot of learning but it is also dense, exhausting; a fancy Indiana Jones adventure. An intellectual adventure novel, there are so many references to so many areas it almost needs its own index. Kabbalah, the construction of sewers, alchemy, numerology, chased endlessly by the Knights Templar there is so much here it either has something for everyone or too much of everything. But there is a strong spirit, a relatable tone to keep the reader in as you wade through the conspiracy theories and endless details.
After reading too many manuscripts about conspiracy theories at their vanity publishing house, three editors invent their own conspiracy theory for fun. The story opens with Casaubon in the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris at closing time, watching the mindless crowds around him and working over how he got to this place.
Casaubon and his colleagues, educated and idle, mock the very source of their income. Overwhelmed by too many passion projects and amused by the idea of biting the hand that feeds them, they take the most ridiculous, the most intriguing, the most silly theories they can find and through numerology, computer algorithm, sheer randomness, make one, ultimate, all-encompassing conspiracy theory of their own. It explains everything (and yet nothing) in this world, making up further theories to fill the holes in itself. As Casaubon hides in the museum, most of the novel is told through flashback. He hides from security as the museum closes, convinced his colleague has been taken by the very men they made up their definitive conspiracy theory about.
The museum itself is a perfect analogy for the story: founded centuries ago in an old abbey, side by side industrial design, art, science, and inventions sit. This is a space for human creation, sitting oddly with ancient human belief. Casaubon’s publisher is also somewhat like this: all of the possible interpretations of fact, extrapolations of stories, theoretical possibilities are fascinated over and scrawled down; the writers’ self-belief utilised for the publisher’s profit. It’s an uncomfortable relationship.
Going through so many manuscripts, creating such a detailed theory themselves, delving into each of the editors’ own areas of passion all mean there is a lot of dense knowledge here. They are wry, and smug, and knowledgable, and sometimes it is all you can to do hold on, letting the rhythm of the book take you along as yet another obscure Rosicrucian element raised. Focault’s Pendulum – housed in Musée des arts et métiers – is the centre of the world, the one still part in all this madness.
“Idiot. Above her head was the only stable place in the cosmos, the only refuge from damnation of the panta rei, and she guessed it was Pendulum’s business, not hers. A moment later the couple went off – he, trained on some textbook that had blunted his capacity for wonder, she, inert and insensitive to the thrill of the infinite, both oblivious of the awesomeness of their encounter – their first and last encounter – with the One, the Ein-Sof, the Ineffable.”
There is just so much here and so amongst it all you can either be overwhelmed, blown away, or find a little nugget to intrigue you and keep you going. From a personal European history from the wars, to goddess worship in South America, to every possible connivance of organised religion and the men apparently sworn to protect it. Who wrote Shakespeare? How are telluric currents involved? What has stopped the plan from being realised by the late 20th Century? One more question: why did Umberto Eco write a book trying to bring together every mystery and conspiracy known to (and created by) humanity? Gah; it’s an exhausting but enjoyable experience.
I called this book “a literary Dan Brown” to my friend who is an Eco fan the other day, and after a little thought he good-naturedly accepted it (noting of course that Dan Brown is probably the kind of guy who would give his detailed but un-researched manuscript to these publishers, helping feed our editors’ conspiracy theories and telling this story). But perhaps this little line is not as derisive as I thought: it is totally ok to need a little adventure escapism from time to time – I get it from Nordic noir, he gets it from Umberto Eco. So take your Dan Brown how you like it.