Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Umberto Eco has demonstrated many times over the course of his illustrious career the ability to concoct complex and engaging stories centred on unique and imaginative topics. In Fouctault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco introduces us to a trio of Milanese book editors working for a small publishing firm, who concoct a vast conspiracy stretching from ancient times to the modern era out of sheer boredom, only to realize there might be more truth to it than anticipated.
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Umberto Eco Builds the Greatest Scheme
Whereas conspiracy theories used to be a little more exclusive in terms of how many people knew about and believed in them, today they’ve spread like wildfire, namely thanks to the spread of the internet and the rise of social media. We’ve all run into them at one point or another, but few have gone through the trouble Umberto Eco has in his classic bestselling novel, Foucault’s Pendulum.
The story begins by introducing us to Casaubon, Diotallevi and Belbo, three editors working for the Milanese publishing firm Garamond. For the most part, they subsist off a scheme involving a torrent of unsuccessful writers coming and going through the revolving door of their company, as well as various side projects, such as a volume on the history of metals.
For the three young and imaginative editors, the work they’re tasked with proves a little too monotonous and boring for their liking, and at a certain point they decide to come up with The Plan. In short, it’s meant to be a purely fictional conspiracy theory stretching from ancient times all the way to the modern era, linking the Knights Templar to a host of other occult groups throughout history and ultimately pointing to a place from which knowledge can be gained to control the world: the titular pendulum.
As they soon learn, creating a solid and believable conspiracy is a lot more difficult than appears at first sight, sending them deep into the world of the occult and those who study it for information they can twist and manipulate to their own ends. As The Plan grows in size and complexity, their search for missing links and nonexistent pieces of evidence becomes ever-more frantic, putting them on a collision course with a danger much more real than their fictional theory.
Though they couldn’t really have suspected it, in a fateful turn of events the joke they wanted to play on the world takes on a character of its own, and the question arises as to whether or not some of it could be real. The lines between fiction and reality blur further and further, and the monster they’ve created begins to assume a life of its own, one that promises damnation for all those it touches.
As the man said, for every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s wrong.― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
Weaving the Strands of History in Foucault’s Pendulum
This novel of Umberto Eco‘s is certainly unique and special in its own right, standing apart from its peers and resisting attempts at comparisons with works which might share spiritual similarities. There are probably more things to discuss about it than could be included in a short book review, and the element I’d like to focus my attention on first and foremost is way in which we are taken through the process of a conspiracy’s birth and evolution.
When we are treated to grand plans in other novels, authors tend to merely give their readers the details necessary to put together the big picture, brushing any other questions under the carpet using whatever excuses they can manage. In Foucault’s Pendulum, all those questions and little details are treated with as much respect as the major beats, and in my opinion this is one of the elements making it a truly special experience.
We get to see the inception of The Plan from the very first thread which would ultimately lead them to the idea, observing how the seeds for the vast conspiracy take hold in their minds, and how slowly but surely, they begin to take on a concrete shape. Umberto Eco carefully weaves together one historical fact with the next one, always ensuring there are no plot holes or missing elements for the reader to criticize.
As you might have guessed if you’re already familiar with him, Umberto Eco is a true history buff, and while the connections he makes between various groups and societies are indeed fictional, he does heavily base himself in historical facts. The amount of research he has done on the subject is overtly apparent, especially in the passages where he bombards us with facts upon facts about people and organizations I didn’t even know ever existed.
While it is true that at times it becomes quite difficult, if not nearly impossible to keep up with and remember all the associations the author is making from ancient times to modern days, I think it’s something the author did on purpose. What for? In my opinion, he tried to bring us as close as possible to the mental state the three main characters found themselves in, a vortex of obsession and confusion where moving forward by instinct is the only possible way of progressing. I think he certainly succeeded.
Counterfactual conditionals are always true, because the premise is false.― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
Three Forgers of Fate
For the entire book we’re seeing things from Casaubon’s perspective, and we spend quite a lot of time in Diotallevi and Belbo’s company, at least until the final act comes along, where the focus starts to shift more towards the narrator. These three friends make up the hear and soul of the story, each being complex person with his own proclivities and demons to fight.
Personally, I found the scenes in which they interacted with each other to have been some of the more enthralling, and at times, endearing moments in the whole story, with Umberto Eco having fatefully captured the chemistry which would reign between three close friends who, nevertheless, haven’t known each other for all that long. Each one is recognizable as soon as he opens his mouth, and the more we learn about their ambitions and motives for coming up with The Plan, the more they seem inevitably bound to tragedy.
A good deal of the story is also dedicated to the three friends’ meetings with various members of organizations and societies which, in one way or another, have something they can contribute to The Plan. These encounters lead us to make the acquaintance of some interesting and eccentric people who add their own invaluable input to the conspiracy, and a much-needed layer of amusement to the story.
I think the author also handled quite well the transition from The Plan being fake to real with a welcome finesse. As the reader (especially one who read the summary on the back) it’s no secret The Plan will indeed turn out to be real, and Umberto Eco treats us with respect in this regard, having a character outright state it at the very start.
Nevertheless, he leaves enough of it up for interpretation, and we are still left with the mystery as to what the plan really is, and how it could actually be real. The journey leading us to its unravelling is nothing short of captivating, with every new bit of added information only teasing the possibility of what could come next. The ultimate twist was also, I found, quite clever and with some chewy food for thought to go along with it.
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The Final Verdict
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco is a unique and exemplary piece of historical fiction, showing us how the world’s grandest conspiracy can be forged, and even worse, how it can become real. With laughs, philosophical moments and introspective opportunities aplenty, the story remains a relevant masterpiece even three decades later.
If you enjoy the works of Umberto Eco, are looking to discover the author at the peak of his talents, or in search of an intelligent story mixing historical facts and fiction into a grandiose plot, then I think you should definitely add this book to your library.
VIDEO: Umberto Eco: I Was Always Narrating
(January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016)
Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist, philosopher, literary critic and university professor whose best-known work came out in 1980, a historical mystery, The Name of the Rose. Amongst the numerous prices he was awarded are the Bancarella Prize, Strega Prize, Austrian State Prize for European Literature, and The Vize 97 Prize.