Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco, William Weaver I think it could be validly opined that all of Umberto Eco’s novels primarily exist to show off how much he knows. They are all jam-packed with esoteric knowledge from such specialized and varied sources that one wonders how a single human being managed to fit them all into his head, let alone turn them into fodder for a story. In this sense Eco seems much like his own creation of Casaubon from this novel, “the Marlowe of culture”: one able to sift through the vast repository of arcane and seemingly arbitrary bits of knowledge and not only pull out the bits he wants, but to put them together to create an impressive and coherent edifice. These influences and bits of knowledge aren’t just “high culture” things one might expect from an ivory tower academic, but also include numerous pop culture references that show a deep affection for them on Eco’s part. I can get behind that kind of syncretism. From the Templars, South American religious cults, and telluric currents to the secret masters of the world, the mysteries of alchemy, and the hollow earth Eco seems to fit pretty much every occult mystery you could think of (and many you couldn’t) into his work. There is also a prevalent fascination with Cabala, the nature of words, and the way in which words (and the ideas they form) shape our reality...only natural for a semiotician I suppose.

I’m sure you all know the basic premise of the story, and in its most common shorthand description, one that I think is fairly apt, it’s been called “the thinking man’s _Da Vinci Code_”. It's the story of three clever men undone by their own ingenuity, or perhaps they are actually undone by the credulity of others. Either way these three friends, working for a small publishing house in Milan, decide to play a little game after one too many crazy ‘diabolicals’ obsessed with the occult and the mystery of the Templars comes to their office peddling the next conspiracy theory of the secret masters of the world. Why not look at all of the vast theories out there, as well as numerous other ‘normal’ facts, and tie them all together into the grandest, and most elegant conspiracy theory of them all? Beat the crazies at their own game! What happens, though, when the crazies get wind of your incredibly elegant theory and begin to suspect that maybe there’s something to it and their lust for the ‘secrets’ you possess will brook no pleas of innocence and ignorance on the matter?

Eco does a lot of clever things in this novel, not least of which is coming up with a syncretic theory of nearly everything that plausibly ties huge swathes of western history and occult theories into an overall Master-Plan neatly tied up with a bow. He also manages to keep things off kilter enough that the reader is left wondering at the end just what is real and what is false. It seems, for most of the book, that the occult-obsessed diabolicals are truly insane monomaniacs. They pursue their goal with single-minded abandon and are able not so much to ignore any fact that contradicts their ideas, as to take it and twist it to align with the meaning their world-view requires with ridiculous ease. Indeed, Casaubon and his friends Belbo and Diotallevi show just how ridiculously easy it is to twist meaning to your own ends…that’s the whole point of their game, sending up the ridiculous blinders of those they mock. And yet…there are enough strange occurrences and unexplained phenomena to give one pause. Could it be true? Is the story more than just a story? Do things dove-tail so nicely because they should?

Casaubon is the viewpoint character for Eco’s little drama, immediately plunging the reader in medias res as we are thrust abruptly into the tail end of a conspiracy gone bad, though bit by bit he reveals the source of his troubles and terrors as he remembers the path of folly that led him to his current dire straits. While Casaubon is thus central to the story in many ways it is also (or perhaps “really”) the sad story of the life of poor Jacopo Belbo, a man whose existence has been, in his own mind at least, little more than a string of disappointments and failures. His reminiscences play a melancholic counterpoint to the larger story of the Templar conspiracy that threatens to overwhelm the three hapless editors. It is, indeed, through his single success at being the driving force (through the means of both his own thwarted creative impulses and his computer Abulafia) behind the crafting of the disparate and unlikely elements that become the Plan that his greatest failure lies...or is it his only true victory? Belbo’s story is ultimately the beating heart of the novel, the thing that keeps it grounded in human experience and ensures its wide and varied flights of fancy never take it too far from what we live and know at a gut level.

I think this is a great book that runs the gamut from ‘high-brow’ meditations on the nature of history and the mysteries of reality to ‘low-brow’ penny dreadful adventure and intrigue. The main characters are fairly well drawn, even when done so by the merest brush strokes, though the real stars in this regard are probably the large and varied cast of ‘diabolicals’, foremost amongst them that most urbane and witty cabalist, the Comte de Saint-Germain. If you like occult mysteries, conspiracy theories, and books that are densely packed with nuggets of lore then this is the book for you.