A review of Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Foucault’s Pendulum
by Umberto Eco
Harcourt Books
2007 (originally published in Italian in 1988), ISBN 978-0-15-603297-1, $15.00, 623 pages

Eco is professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and is the author of many books – fiction, literary criticism, and essays. This book is one of the best known of his novels and is here re-issued in a quality softbound edition.

Eco is not a consistent writer and many of his books are thin (The Island of the Day Before) or written with too little research (Bandolino). The Name of the Rose has been to date his most successful novel and Foucault’s Pendulum is gratifyingly similar in that it is complexly ordered, and – despite its learned or at least esoteric trappings – efficiently organized. The three bored young men who foster an illusion and then find it to be real and menacing are quickly characterized. Casaubon is the narrator. It is he, a student, who becomes acquainted with the two publishing house editors Belbo and Diotellevi. Together they investigate the case of the Templars, an order of monastic soldiers that came in conflict with the hierarchy and the French king and was brought down by the inquisition in the early fourteenth century.

Belbo, whose past contains incidents of running away from danger, has recorded much of his life and his imagination in his computer. Casaubon breaks into the computer when Belbo vanishes. The password is cunningly simple: to the question “Do you know the password” the user responds “No,” which turns out to be the password.

About the Templars gathered a cloud of myths and a writer came to Belbo with a manuscript on these myths. Casaubon was present and listened to the man’s story as he tried to peddle his manuscript. It was the usual tale of conspiracy and the survival underground even to the present day of the Templars, now rich and powerful through occult lore that they have mastered. The man feared reprisal for his knowledge, and he vanishes, possibly murdered.

Casaubon, it transpires, needs to spend the night in a Paris museum. It contains Foucault’s pendulum. Much of the narrative emerges from his wait in the dark and he tells us about his time in Brazil and his involvement in the occult practices of the Brazilians. Eco moves forward but he does so carefully, and withholds information until little is certain except the presence of some force that is intimidating and frightening.

Under the guidance of the mysterious Aglié, a man who says that he is immortal, Casaubon, Belbo and Diotellevi – along with the charlatan publisher whom they work for and who is preparing a series of books on the occult –engage themselves more and more deeply in the world of secrets. Belbo, plagued by a past in which he has constantly disappointed himself and tormented by a faithless woman, becomes less and less stable. Casaubon can no longer tell where the world of magic begins and that of reality leaves off. Throughout the book there are frequent references to something called simply the Plan. We can read over half the book before we discover what this is.

The Plan borrows some of the characteristics of the computer – Belbo is their authority on computers – with a determination of the three men to establish facts or at least fancies by free association with anything at all. In the course of this intellectual game they make a reasonable surmise of the Templar hiding places (based on a document in possession of the possibly murdered author who appeared much earlier in the book). The Plan is thus a game but a game played like many games with the utmost seriousness.

Eco sustains his fantasy with the skill of a gifted writer, but sometimes he resembles the woman who thinks that she can make it on just sex appeal. The studied pose of a gifted writer can slip and leave great empty places exposed. He will carry you forward with more skill than in his other works, and, magician-like, induce you to read the whole of a long, long book, but the final pages miss the target and he – and his reader – has to content himself with a gestures rather than reality. Foucault’s Pendulum is worth reading but will give less and less satisfaction as it approaches the end.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places