14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2005
Is Umberto Eco writing the novels he thinks Jorge Luis Borges would have written? In "The Name of the Rose," Eco took several of Borges's favorite motifs--labyrinths, libraries, and murder--and whipped them into a maelstrom of a medieval mystery tale. In "Foucault's Pendulum," Eco again traverses Borges territory by dipping into the Kabbalah, even naming the ten sections of the novel after, and attempting to link them thematically to, the Sefirot. What we have here is the Rabelaisian spirit filtered through the electronic age, a grand tour through Eco's erudition that makes selected stops at various esoteric points in the past seven hundred years of European history.
Because Eco leans so heavily on Borges, an important distinction should be made. Borges and other polymath authors like Joyce, Mann, Pynchon, and Eco's Italian Borgesian precursor Italo Calvino are intentionally enigmatic; they don't interpret for their readers and they don't treat their readers like students. Eco, on the other hand, like an eager professor, tends to explain everything in instructive, almost pedantic, detail ("Know anything about the Rosicrucians? No, of course you don't. I'm one of the very few who do. Don't worry, I'll tell you all about them."), which classes him with fellow academic novelists like John Barth and Robertson Davies. This is not to imply that one type of writer is superior to the other, but the former certainly give you more room to breathe.
The plot of "Foucault's Pendulum" involves three men--Belbo, Diotallevi, and the narrator Casaubon--who work for a Milan publishing company that specializes in books about mysticism and occult theories of history and science. Using a computer word processor Belbo calls Abulafia and much numerological speculation, they combine random names and facts from history to reconstruct the legend of the Templars, a monastic order of Crusaders who ostensibly disbanded when their grand master, Jacques de Molay, was executed in 1314 but who are reputed to have continued as a secret society, associating with various other cults and clandestine organizations, with the intent of concealing the location of (I think I have this right) the earth's "navel"--a conduit of what are called telluric currents which harness enough energy to control the earth's natural forces.
None of Eco's three protagonists really distinguishes himself as a character, except that Diotallevi is a superficial Kabbalist and Belbo's motivation in life derives from his boyhood desire to play the trumpet. They are adequately convincing, however, as scholarly researchers performing intellectual detective work to determine that the titular pendulum is a tool for locating the geonavel. It is when the the story is reduced to a physical quest that the seams start to strain, and the climactic scene, which would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie, seems feeble and odd after so much convoluted setup and fails to deliver a fair payoff.
The text is mostly dialogue, a continuous exchange of information between one character and one or more others, a sort of call-and-response method of narration which gives the novel a conversational tone but also seems a little contrived--is this what book editors really sound like when they talk shop? Nevertheless, because of this technique the novel has neither the pace nor the mien of a generic thriller; it is more like a staged lecture about worldwide religious conspiracies, a pantheistic convocation of all of man's attempts to learn the secrets of the universe. "Foucault's Pendulum" is exasperatingly garrulous and not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but at a time when literature should encourage curiosity rather than avoid mental challenges, the effort is very much appreciated.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Don't even try to follow all the details in this one, just go with the flow. Eco cleverly combines the Knights Templar, Jewish Mysticism, South American native tribes, language, witchcraft, physics, Francis Bacon, the various calendars, European history, middle Eastern history, and more, in a caper that starts out as a game to entertain three friends in the publishing business in Italy and ends up being the mother of all conspiracies.
This book is much more entertaining, in my opionion, than the Name of the Rose as it involves a much more clever interplay of various disciplines and is more than a mere murder mystery. As in the Name of the Rose, Eco introduces each chapter with writings in a variety of languages -- Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, etc. Unless you are particularly interested in ancient languages and obscure historical writings, it is safe to ignore these but for a general sense of flavor. It is also nearly impossible to actually follow all the details of the plot, which deals with a group of publishers who conceive of the idea to publish "writers" with far-out theories for a fee, only to find that some of the theories add-up to a great mystical conspiracy. Once I gave up trying to follow all the intricate details of the plot, I found the experience quite enjoyable. I'm looking forward to reading this book again to find all the things I missed the first time. Eco's depth and breadth of knowledge in so many areas is impressive. This man is definitely a genius.
In short, this book is not for anyone who doesn't want to have to do a little work as it is neither a quick nor an easy read and the subject matter is fairly esoteric. But, oh, is it worth the effort.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2004
"...if there had to be a cosmic plot, we could invent the most cosmic of all."
"Foucault's Pendulum" is a book rich in history and deep in mystery. Even when you reach the end, you may not be entirely sure what just happened. And of course, considering the subject matter, that is entirely the point.
The story centers around one Casaubon, a student writing a paper about the Knights Templar. By chance, he meets Jacopo Belbo, a book editor working for a small publisher in Milan. They strike up a fast friendship, and Casaubon shortly begins working for the same publisher, helping them to gather facts and imagery for a new series of books they are publishing.
Casaubon, Belbo, and another editor named Diotallevi take a morbid interest in the subject matter of the many books that are brought to them. The prospective authors, who they call "the Diabolicals," present them with far-fetched ideas about global historical conspiracies and a centuries-old plot to somehow rule the world from the shadows. While each story is different, the three men can see common threads running through all of them, and on their own time they explore the idea further themselves, just for the fun of it.
Using an early model of a word processor (celverly named Abulafia, after the Hebrew Kabbalah scholar), they begin borrowing random concepts from the work of the Diabolicals and stringing them together. They include other sources as well, just to mix it up a bit. What they discover is what they call the Plan, and it could be the most important conspiracy theory in the history of the modern world, involving the Rosicrucians, the Jewish Kabbalah, Masonic rituals, Napoleon, the Nazis, and of course at the center of it all, the Knights Templar, spanning over 600 years of European history... or, it could just be a huge coincidence.
What makes "Foucault's Pendulum" such a great novel is not just how it strings the different pieces of the puzzle together (which it does masterfully), nor simply how it makes it whole idea so compelling (which it also does well), but how, simulataneously, it makes you question everything you're reading. Right up until the end (and even beyond), Eco keeps you guessing as to what is "real" and what is not. Where other authors, covering similar subjects, make the conclusions predictable or melodramatic, Eco manages to find a place where the reader is never really sure if what they're reading about is fact, fiction, or something in between. The conclusion is subtle, and leaves nagging doubts in the reader's mind.
The history presented in the book is top-notch, and it's never presented in a way that is insulting or "dumbed down" for the reader. Many books like this tend to include long, painfully obvious passages of exposition, but with Eco one never feels like the information is being presented by sacrificing the story. He manages exposition quite well, and everything that is presented matches the needed context of story and the characters.
The characters themselves have depth, and their dialogue never fails to make them real for the reader. I particularly enjoyed one part, early on, when the three new friends discuss a School of Comparative Irrelevance, a course of studies for useless or impossible subjects, such as "Urban Planning for Gypsies," "Morse Syntax," and "The Phonetics of the Silent Film." This passage served many purposes. On the surface level, it was extremely amusing. It also told the reader a great deal about each of the main characters in an efficient, transparent way. Finally, it serves as foreshadowing of the far broader and deeper invention these characters would soon be embarking upon. To accomplish so much in just a few pages of (primarily) dialogue is the mark of a gifted author.
Through the course of the book Casaubon has many different experiences, both mystical and mundane. Abulafia becomes more than a simple word processor, it becomes a source of truth and another veil of mystery to be pulled aside. Belbo tries to reconcile his sardonic nature with the mystery they seem to be uncovering, trying to maintain a scholarly distance while becoming more and more entranced with the story beneath the stories they hear. And Diotallevi ties everything they learn in with his own beliefs, and what truth means to him.
In the end, "Foucault's Pendulum" is a story about faith, and both the wonderful and terrible things a powerful belief can accomplish. It is also about how different people can take the same facts and each will interpret them in their own way, often wildly different from one another. Eco conveys his ideas via a compelling, original story, and in so doing makes we, the readers, think about what he has to say. It is not the facts themselves that are important, but only the connections we make between them. Perhaps, in the end, it is the interpretations, not the facts themselves, which shape beliefs... and therefore shape the events of history.
"But I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2001
First, dont be deceived by the plot summaries listed above...though masterful in its own way, this book does not have a fast paced, detective style plot. Eco does tell the tale of three editors of who weave a compelling yet fictitious Plan culled from the writings of crackpot would-be authors, (a fake Plan that becomes menacingly real when the crackpots take it seriously). However, if you are a reader who judges a book by how well the author tells a compelling story, and how well the author keeps you gripped by the interaction of his characters, you are likely to judge this book a failure.
This book is not a failure. True, entire chapters meander along, seemingly contributing nothing to the premise of the story, but Eco's true story is not found in the plot, or the interaction/evolution of his characters, but rather the fascinating evolution of the Plan his characters are creating.
The story of human thought, human philosophy, and humanity's desire to control the very rotation of the World itself is masterfully told through Eco's amazing ability to meld actual historical facts, philosophical axioms and scientific discoveries with fictional connections, interrelations and motivations. Eco's numerous oblique references to historical figures and events, to works of literature and art (secular, religious and occult) may annoy some readers as overly showy (Eco's writing can give even a philosphy Ph.D an inferiority complex), but I think that is partly Eco's aim...to inspire his readers to higher standards of learning, preception and appreciation.
I think many readers feel the last hundred pages of the book are the best, when Eco's plot focuses more on his characters as they reap what they have sown. I agree, but more because the plot is now empowered by the full weight of their/Eco's intellectual journey/descent (just as some feel that Shawshank Redemption was way too long a movie, but the ending's emotional impact is due largely to the fact that the movie had time to properly build it up)
Read it all, its worth it. I gave it 4 stars only because all this having been said, I believe Eco could have done a better job with the story...its as if the magnitude of his creation was too much even for him to control to the full extent of his skill as a writer.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2000
Eco is having the last laugh.
In "Foucault's Pendulum" Umberto Eco is writing a huge joke with the whole world as the punchline. He takes everything you know about history (and quite a few things you don't) and wraps them all up in such a way that they make sense. Or better yet, in a brilliant act of post modernism, he has his characters do it. Causabon, the narrator of the tale, spends his time explaining to the reader that none of this is real. And yet, when you put the book down, all the connections which have been explained become glaringly obvious in real life. It's like when you buy a new car and suddenly all you see on the road is that model. Eco creates the pathways for your own brain to make the connections. I realize this tells you nothing about the plot of the book, but that's half the fun of reading it. You have to decide for yourself where he's being serious and where he's playing a joke. And even after you decide...you're probably wrong.
Like Tim Powers, Eco is very skillful at weaving historical fact into a fantastic tale. Ultimately, you don't know if he's pulling your leg or if he's just written down a long forgotten history and is downplaying it as fiction to make sure he doesn't get into trouble with the powers that be.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2002
"Foucault's Pendulum" is not an easy read, but it is a gratifying venture for those willing to resist the seduction of the artificial separation of science and spirit to which modern Westerners have become addicted in the last 200 years.
Eco ostensibly weaves his story within the matrix of the Kabbalah--an ancient Jewish mysticism which seeks to reconcile all aspects of human experience through the study of the energies which inspire them. The chapter headings themselves are indicators of specific mystical concepts. Upon first inspection, the reader may fail to grasp this correspondence between Eco's story and Jewish mysticism.
Indeed, a familiarity with the Kabbalah may help one to better appreciate Eco's juxtaposition of the skeptical mechanism of the scientific Jean Bernard Leon Foucault and the elegance of thought displayed by the more contemporary philosopher Michel Foucault. The cosmology of Foucault's Pendulum is an amalgamation of time and mind which is informed by the vision of both Foucaults.
It is not necessary, however, for the reader to carry out in-depth research to appreciate Foucault's Pendulum. While it does allude to an arcane Jewish mysticism, Eco's story must stand on its own--even for the reader for whom the beliefs are unfamiliar.
Eco's writing style is intricate, and his ideas complex. He uses this to great effect in presenting a world which is neither simple nor straightforward, creating a story which is challenging and vivid. Eco skillfully reconciles the mystical world with the scientific, and indeed creates a world in which the artificial distinction ceases to exist.
Eco's Pendulum forces one into the nascent space there at the apex of the pendulum's swing...
...and invites one to figure out how to live there.
35 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 1999
For better or for worse, this book has changed my life. Not that I have become some paranoid conspiracy theorist, but I was inspired to discover the larger story hidden beneath our "known" history. Many of the reviewers comment on the difficulty of plodding through the density contained in this novel, going so far as to blame it on the writer's sanctimonious ego for its inclusion. I think these people are missing the boat, ignoring the fact that this density is what is require of the novel to make evident its meaning. I was fascinated and entranced by the extensive historical details, insofar as to say it was those aspects were what made this read so pleasurable. The message of the book, exemplified by Abulafia's skill at piecing together esoteric bits of information goes to show us how seemingly incoherent events of time shape our story of history. Eco shows us that the story can be changed, altered, and tailored; an alternate view of history revealed. Does this new history have any less validity than the accepted one? Eco makes the case that it doesn't, but also not to stress over it. This is the final revelation of the protagonist. Enjoy the density, enjoy the history. This is a fantastic opportunity to glimpse back in time.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2005
I was very dissastisfied after reading this book. With so much conjecture, tension, and intrigue, I expected a more interesting conclusion. As a matter of fact, I knew exactly how it was going to end, and prayed throughout the last third of the book that I would be wrong. Only recommened if you are a serious history nut and would enjoy readng endless speculation about the movements and trials of an unverifiable, if not imaginary, group of people who control some vague tool powerful enough to .... what, exactly?
Perhaps UE meant to elicit the frustration of his homeland's bureaucracy. A country which I am infinitely fond of, for the record.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I don't have a good track record with Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose irritated the heck out of me since, fool that I was, I thought I was buying a mystery story, and it is certainly something else entirely. As a result I've been on an Eco boycott for a very long time. Finally, driven by my own addiction to the grand scale of European plot and secret society mythology, I broke down and purchased Foucault's Pendulum. Surprisingly, Eco's writing style is the perfect combination for paranoid and multi-tier narratives. I may have to go back and do some re-reading.
In a not so subtle fashion, Eco tells the reader what he is going to do right from the beginning. He borrows his novel structure from the Kabalah. Not only that, but the Kabalistic practice of rearranging letters and words in sacred texts becomes the way that Eco introduces, develops, and intertwines his many themes. And it is also the way his major characters take a handful of clues and a great deal of concocted material to produce the grandest of all paranoid designs. So powerful is their invention that it overruns the perceptions of the three publishing editors - Casaubon the narrator, Jacopo Belbo, and Diotallevi. Far from being a joke, it turns into a nightmare in which the crackpots who inhale these mad schemes decide that the three have discovered a secret and decide to go get it.
How this came about is the result of what amounts to a self-publishing scam in which 'believers' (referred to as The Diabolicals) are convinced to pay for the publication of their pet ideas. Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi, who work for the publisher, realize that it is possible to fit all the tiny pieces together and make the mistake of leaking their composition to some of the powers behind the mass of The Diabolicals. Umberto Eco uses this scheme within a scheme within a scheme approach to launch a whole hearted attack on our concepts of truth and reality. Belief lives at the core of Eco's reality - we can turn the world into a novel with only the efforts of our imagination.
It is no surprise that Eco writes this story as a progress through the Tree of Life from Keter, the sublime and unknowable crown of all things unknowable to Malkhut, the world of man. Our perception and thought is an aftereffect of this process. Thus the idea of a secret becomes the cause of the secrets, and Eco doesn't hesitate to use this reversed logic to tease and entertain us on many levels. This is a book rich in reference and intellectual imagery, one that could not be written by someone who lacked a sense of meaning and signification. Foucault's Pendulum is something of a tour de force, providing enough variety of experience to please any reader.
61 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2003
Umberto Eco's 'Foucault's Pendulum' is a book that inspires strong emotions. Readers either love it or loathe it. Count me in the latter category. Nothing against the author. I'm sure he achieved his objectives with flying colors. And the subject matter is, at times, pretty darn interesting. But Eco's style -- fraught with arcane references and interminable diatribes -- is not my cup of tea. To boot, the explanation of the causes of the holocaust, albeit fictionalized, is disturbing, to put it mildly. Here's a snippet of what I'm talking about: 'Hitler was searching the Jews for the clue that would allow him to determine, with the Pendulum, the exact point under the earth's concave vault where the telluric currents converged.' (See pp. 422-3, et al.)
I regret that I plowed through the whole book, but I have an irrational habit of always finishing the books that I begin reading. To the more rational reader, I suggest the following: read the first six pages. If it tickles your shorts, keep reading. There's plenty more where that came from. If not, cut bait and find something else to read. Granted, there are many people for whom 'Foucault's Pendulum' is a brilliant piece of literature. But for others, the book will only disappoint for many, many hours.