Best book club: Foucault’s Pendulum

I realized that I did not update my blog as much as I would like to. I have a few posts that I promised or want to write and are still unwritten like the one (the follow-up of this one in fact) on archeology, but these posts require a lot of work and thinking and I really have no time lately, with a second kid and my job (and being sick sometimes like this week).

In the meantime, I will try to maintain at least the minimum of a new entry every week.

And this week I wish to write about one of my favorite books of all time: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I may be originally French, and although I was raised in the best French public schools, I never understood French literature. Apparently, what the French value in literature are things like style and other stuff that I can’t really identify up to this day. I really have no idea why they think that some book is great and some other not, according to which set of criteria. On my part, what I want when I read a book is to get a good story and to learn things, and Umberto Eco does both. Above all I love books that make me think.

Eco, one of the greatest minds of our time, is best known for « The Name of the Rose« , a very unlikely bestseller in 1980. A most erudite and intellectual story dealing with medieval philosophy and religion, it nevertheless sold millions of copies worldwide.

This is no doubt the work of a genius but I have a preference for his second work as a novelist: « Foucault’s Pendulum », published in 1988. I read it the first time in 1992 and what both captivated and fascinated. I read it some years later, and now again a few weeks ago, and had the pleasure of discovering it again twenty years later, as I forgot many things, but even better, as I some parts that I liked less in the past grew to be more interesting to me as I became older.

The book is about a group of three very erudite and intelligent editors in a small publishing house in Milano who, between 1970 and 1985, slowly invent a crazy conspiracy theory that explains all the history and mysteries of the world, mostly for fun and intellectual game, until some people start to take it seriously. The « Plan », as they call it, includes the secret of the Templars, the Jews, the Freemasons, the French Revolution, the Jesuites, the 30 Years War, Marxism, Nazism, even Islamists, everything. It’s a work of pure knowledge and erudition and mental illness. And it really connects to real theories and myths and ideologies as the guiding principle of the Plan is to use only things that already have been said – it just makes sense of all of them as a coherent story. And the funniest part is that originally the Plan is based on what is probably just an old grocery list.

In the process of creating the Plan, the heroes meet with a crowd of people that they call « the diabolicals », people that deal with occultism, esoteric ideas and conspiracy theories. What unites them is the feeling that « something is wrong with the world », as Morpheus told Neo in « The Matrix » and they are looking for « the Truth », the people who are really directing the events. they feel that history is driven by something so it has to be some gigantic conspiracy, the proof of it being that there is no proof of it. Of course, what they explain by a gigantic centuries-spanning conspiracy, most of us will just call it « God » and « Providence ». Conspiracy theories is a way for atheists and losers to make sense of the world.

This book is not just fascinating but also prophetic. I remember that some years ago, when « Da Vinci Code » became a success, journalists compared it to « Foucault’s Pendulum » calling the later « Da Vinci Code for intellectuals ». Umberto Eco replied that on the contrary his book was making fun of people like Dan Brown who would have been a character in the novel. Furthermore, in the book, written in 1988, the same theory as in « Da Vinci Code » about the Graal being the son of Jesus and the father of the Merovingian dynasty in France is invented on the spot by one of the character. Another says that if he would publish this story as a book, he would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Dan Brown apparently took the advice and sold, 15 years later, dozen of millions. Umberto Eco, apparently, underestimated the stupidity of the public.

Another chapter starts by « A map is not the territory » – and the last Michel Houellebecq novel was called « The Map and the Territory« … everything is linked to everything, like in the Plan.

More seriously, indeed if there is a Plan, it is of the following work of Umberto Eco. Re-reading the book, I was stricken by how much it seems to introduce and mirror his later novels.

Every novel by Eco is a framing story in which a narrator retells something that already happened to himself or to the main character of the book. In « The Name of the Rose », the narrator just explains strange events that happened to him many decades ago during a few days. But in later books starting with « Foucault’s Pendulum », this framing story imbricates with the main narrative as memory that stretches many years and actual events slowly collide together. The concept of lost memories, of a narrator trying to remember what happened that lead him to his current situation is a common theme.

Even more, each later book seems to develop something that was just touched in « Foucault’s Pendulum ». « The Island of the Day Before » deals with the strangeness and wonder of the 17th century, a major theme of « Foucault ». « Baudolino » explores the mythologies of the Middle Ages and the Crusades, a central story also in Foucault. « The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana » deals with memory and the life in the 30’s and 40’s in Italy, something already touched in Foucault’s Pendulum with the character of Belbo. And Eco’s last best-seller, « The Prague Cemetery » is also developed from an important plot point in Foucault. It seems that this book was really a defining moment for Eco.

Anyway, just read it. This is not an easy read, it takes time to really start, some passages are in Hebrew or Latin. But this book is unique and marvelous and will make you think a lot.

Illustrating image: the cover of the book in the French version that I have (1990).

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