The world has never been short on ridiculous conspiracies and otherworldly claims, mostly because we have an inexplicable urge to believe in the absurd and make fools out of ourselves time and time again.
We’ve fallen for the old-timey Photoshop equivalent the Loch Ness Monster, pictures of the blurry creature known as Bigfoot, and even now we’re starting to think that the Voynich Manuscript is a bunch of gibberish that we’ve taken too seriously because we can’t stand the thought of making unimportant discoveries.
However, none of these hoaxes can come even remotely close to what three Milanese editors manage to cook up what is perhaps Umberto Eco’s most famous work, Foucault’s Pendulum.
The Greatest Conspiracy is Born
Now, we all know that this world is full of secret societies that love to hold meetings reminiscent of Alcoholics Anonymous, but with more hooded robes and mischievous laughter. The Illuminati are likely running the world in secret (and doing a terrible job of it, I might add), and the Knights Templar probably keep themselves busy by burning witches and whatnot… the point is, we never know what these societies are up to, and we must therefore assume they have evil plans for intergalactic domination.
That’s basically the kind of vagueness our Milanese authors in the story make use of in order to cure their boredom: because so little is known about these secretive groups, they can make up whatever they like, and everyone will believe them.
Without giving too much away, the editors come up with what they call “the Plan”, and it’s a conspiracy which links the Knights Templar to countless other occult groups, from the ancient past all the way to the present modern times. Not being content to stop there, they come up with a map that gives us the thing we all covet above everything else: the place where it is possible to control the powers of this Earth.
That place is located in Paris, France, at the titular Foucault’s Pendulum. So far the story takes on a rather humorous tone and is an easy read, with the bored editors about to play the world’s biggest prank. The language is a bit dense, that much is true, but it serves its purpose in bringing us rich and detailed descriptions of the world Eco is trying to create.
When Fiction Trumps Reality
Needless to say, things end up taking a turn for the worse when the various occult groups around the world start getting wind of “the Plan”. Ironically, these groups buy into the conspiracy more than anyone else, entering in a race to reach that coveted pendulum and control the world.
As the editors see it all spin out of control, quite hilariously I should add, they start to understand the kind of mistake they’ve made: as the authors of “the Plan”, they are obvious targets for the mystical knowledge they seem to possess… and one of them may very well bite the dust. This is where the book becomes somewhat heavier in its tone, with the humor stemming more from the overall context and thoughts of the characters, rather than their actions.
From there on out, the story develops in many unforeseen directions, being a bit of a chaotic mess rather than a logical chain of events, and that perfectly fits the absurdity of the atmosphere and the bizarre characters we keep coming across. Though the novel definitely has a specific climax story-wise, for every person the true zenith comes at a different time: the moment when we understand what Eco is trying to convey, at least in relation to our own lives.
Umberto Eco’s Meditations
Indeed, Umberto Eco was never known as an empty writer, his books always being filled to the brim with juicy brain food, the kind that can take multiple readings to properly digest. In the case of Foucault’s Pendulum, I believe that Eco’s main focus is knowledge, its dissemination, our acceptance or rejection of it, and how we determine its veracity.
He explores how its possible for a lie to turn itself into the truth, how our beliefs and personal knowledge end up shaping not only our personal world, but also that of those around us.
Ultimately, if we can’t know how much of our knowledge is indeed the truth, what does that say about the nature of our reality? Could we have more power and control over this world than we believe? These are the kinds of questions we all find personal answers to, and this book is truly magnificent in pushing us towards them.
To sum it all up, Foucault’s Pendulum is far from being your average book in any shape or form. It’s hard to classify it in a single genre, and rather than telling a straightforward story like we’ve seen millions of times before, it goes far beyond and whisks the reader away to a wealthy realm of absurdity, comedy and philosophy.
It’s one of the great quintessential books for us thinkers (and I’d wager to say we all are), and I highly recommend you embark on this laughter-filled journey into the depths of your own mind.
Umberto Eco: I Was Always Narrating
“I realized that even though I started writing novels at the age of 48, I was always narrating. Even my academic papers had the form of a narration.”