Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (Ballantine Books, 1990 (First published Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri Bompiani, 1988) {Translated from Italian by William Weaver}

Grade: A & Ω — Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book, BUT ALSO breaks rules and/or may appeal more to people who do not normally read the genre than those who are aficionados of it. 

In brief:

Foucault’s Pendulum is the thinking man’s answer to the Da Vinci Code.  It is theultimate conspiracy/mystery novel. It is one of my favorite books of all time, but one must be aware that many people find it is a very dense and difficult read.  It is crammed with history and well crafted pseudo-history that many readers find it impenetrable, but if one lets some of the admittedly byzantine labyrinth of slide by, the end is well worth it.

Setting:

Modern Day Earth, Europe.

In Depth:

Take one part cabalism, add a good quantity of Templar conspiracy, six parts Illuminati, a liberal dose of occultism, and a dash of densely packed history and what do you get? Foucault’s Pendulum: the ultimate conspiracy novel.

I won’t lie.  I know of relatively few people who have made it through this book.  The history and twisted history that fills each page is tremendous.  Eco, the award-winning author of The Name of the Rose and numerous other books, has never been known to spare the details. In this book, however, the vast number of details and the characters’ ever-changing re-interpretations of a thousand years worth of historic occult conspiracy theories often proves too much for the reader.  Having studied some of this stuff professionally, I had an unfair advantage but personally, I think that if one does not worry too much about getting bogged down in the details, it makes for a fantastic read.

The narrator and central character, Casaubon, is a historian with expertise in the medieval Knights Templar, who takes a post in a morally dubious publishing company. When he and the other editors decide to engage in a literary joke, they are drawn into the world’s greatest conspiracy. Soon they are searching through a labyrinth of occult mysteries and trying to untangle a history spanning series of clues, some of which are dead ends, others of which lead them to the final truth: a great mystery that answers the world’s greatest conspiracies.

Due to the nature of the tale, one cannot help but compare this novel to Dan Brown‘s better known works: Angels and Demons, The Lost Symbol and of course The Da Vinci Code. Yet in truth, there is no comparison.  While Brown tries to set up conspiracies using half-baked historic research, Eco, a well respected academic whose expertise focuses on semiotics, literary criticism and philosophy, expertly weaves real history into his tale.  This does make for a sometime difficult read, but personally, I think if one just reads it without thinking one needs to completely understand or remember every detail he presents, one will find it an amazingly well crafted thriller.

Having said that, one is left to think that if you could somehow combine Brown’s pace with Eco’s intelligence, knowledge and skillful writing, you would have the ultimate novel. Indeed, one suspects that this has already been done, but is being suppressed by the Rosicrucians….  oh no!  I’ve said too much already….

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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7 Responses to Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (Ballantine Books, 1990 (First published Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri Bompiani, 1988) {Translated from Italian by William Weaver}

  1. First, if one can read Italian, then many of the stylistic problems you mention do not exist.

    Be that as it may, I would regard this work as a farce as outrageous and hilarious as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but far more intellectual in its material.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Hi. Thanks for commenting. I have never has the chance to read the book in the original, and would be fascinated to hear your views.

      I’m not sure, however, how my comments would be impacted by translation. It is indeed the ideas and history that seems to bog people down, not the language, and yet those elements are the very strength of the work.

      Similarly, while I agree there are a huge number of comic elements, if you are unaware of the historiographic context they will be lost on the reader.

      What is more, as you point out, Eco uses the humor to draw the reader in during the first third to half of the book. Then he craftily turns the laughter into dread before making profound commentary with the final reveal. Great book

      • Eco is a master of language and so in the original even the historical passages just seem to me to flow smoothly. In some ways Eco’s style is just a pleasure to read, no matter what he’s actually saying; it comes across as lyrical. I think it’s good solid writing too, but the words in one’s mental ear as one reads just sound nice. Heck, I wish I could write like that.

        Italian as a language has musical qualities to it– in a literal sense– which is way the stereotypical Italian accent people think of tends to be sing-song. Eco uses those musical qualities to the full so that while I wouldn’t call it actually music, the style is certainly suggestive of it.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        You make me wish I could read Italian (or more precisely, you increase my desire to do so). Even so, I must say that a good translation can often capture some, if not all, of both the flow and content nature of an author’s writing.

        Thus, Lucia Graves’s translation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind remained a lyrical joy to read despite the fact it was not in the original. What is more, I have head that Gabriel Garcia Marquez praised the translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude as being superior to the original version (I cannot verify the validity of this statement).

        A great example of the difference a truly skilled translator can make, the translation of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In the Hat by Carlos Rivera reads as if it had been done by a computer program. In contrast, Aida E. Marcuse’s translation of Green Eggs and Ham is less literal (to the degree that Sam-I-am is renamed Juan Ramon), and yet it truly captures the comic nature and lyrical flow of the original.

        Even so, I have yet to read a version of Y Mabinogion in English that keeps the flow of the original, nor do I think that either Ovid or even Tacitus reads well in translation. Many of the subtleties are lost.

      • If you know Latin well, picking up Italian oughtn’t be too difficult. The way I acquired the skill of reading and understanding so many languages was via Classical Philology. Italian and French we were expected to teach ourselves at a certain point. The notion sounds bizarre when said baldly but it worked.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        Oh I can see what you mean. I picked more French after having learned Latin than my four years of high school French ever taught me. Still I have at least two languages to pick up before I can spare the time for Italian.

      • The key element to the philological approach is also doing ancient Greek and comparing and contrasting the languages while discussing other related languages all the way. Wheelock does this thoroughly and that’s what I learned from albeit later editions were as I understand overwhelmed with bad typos. Properly done, the student begins instinctively to recognize and apply patterns in related languages, such as cognates which are not obvious and parallels in forms. The spirit of the approach is highly analytic and lends itself to comparison with higher mathematics.

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