Lighthearted Heavyweight

By Peter S. Prescott

Newsweek, November 13, 1989

Now that the formerly Evil Empire seems disinclined to take over the world, who's left to do the job? In his second heavy novel Umberto Eco proposes a light answer: the Knights Templar, an order of monastic warriors who fought skillfully in the Crusades and acquired great wealth and property before they were disbanded, when their leaders were burned at the stake, in 1314.
We all remember Eco, the Italian semiotician whose first novel, The Name of the Rose, stretched an exegesis of medieval theology over the frame of a detective story. More bought than read (Eco admitted that he meant the first hundred pages to be difficult), Rose has sold 9 million copies in 24 languages. Foucault's Pendulum may be poised to repeat that success. An even bigger boo, soaked in a scholarship that suggests its author has lingered too long among genuinely loony texts, it found 400,000 buyers in Italy within two months of publication. Elitism rarely succeeds in the marketplace, yet the first printing here is 250,000 copies.
Granted that everyone will buy this book, will anyone read it through? Readers who need a plot may fall by the wayside, but on page 375 a plot actually begins. In time, the narrative will acquire the velocity (and all the credibility) that Hergé brought to his comic books about Tintin, or Carl Barks to Donald Duck. Eco presents us with three editors at a small book publishing firm in Milan. (Eco was himself once an editor with a publisher in Milan and delivers the ultimate epitaph for his fraternity: "We midwives who assist at the birth of what others conceive should be refused burial in consecrated ground.") Bored out of their skulls by the occult manuscripts they must read, these three wretches amuse themselves by devising an elaborate parody of their authors' obsession with secret meanings and imagined conspiracies.
This parody -- the Plan, they call it -- will explain and tie everything together: the riddle of the pyramids, the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, the quest for the Holy Grail, the possibility of immortality, the early Jesuit's invention of the computer and the real reason for the Holocaust -- all relate to a single plot. This plot has been carried on for centuries by the descendants of the Knights Templar. Legend has it that the Templars took their treasure underground and will return. According to the Plan, they've been among us all along, biding their time, secretly conferring every 120 years until, just about now, they can take over the world.
The editors agree on "a fundamental axiom: the Templars have something to do with everything." So grandiose a Plan necessarily assumes a life of its own: pretending to believe, as the narrator remarks, leads to believing, and in time the Templars emerge to see what these editors, who know so much about them, are up to.
Eco may have had no choice but to make his novel as long as a small encyclopedia. Like the Templars, it has "something to do with everything," yet at times it groans under its burden of esoteric lore. Toward the end, events take an appropriately apocalyptic turn, but for much of its way the book lacks the motion novels need: for most of its great length, men sit around discussing hundreds of propositions about the secret history of the world -- nearly all of the goofily wrong.

Jesus' wife: Such goofiness gives the novel its delightful spin "Here's my interpretation," one of the editors observes. "Jesus was not crucified, and for that reason the Templars denied the Crucifix. The legend of Joseph of Arimathea covers a deeper truth: Jesus, not the Grail, Landed in France, among the cabalists of Provence. Jesus is the metaphor of the King of the World, the true founder of the Rosicrucians. And who landed with Jesus? His wife. In the Gospels why aren't we told who was married at Cana? It was the wedding of Jesus, and it was a wedding that could not be discussed, because the bride was sinner, Mary Magdalene. That"s why, ever since, all the Illuminati from Simon Magus to Postel seek the principle of the eternal feminine in a brothel. And Jesus, meanwhile, was the founder of the royal line of France."
If you find the amusing, you'll find Foucault's Pendulum a rich and witty book, even it its wit is all of the same cut, theme, and variations, nearly without end. All praise to William Weaver, who has made his great labor translating a difficult text seem almost effortless.

A Talk with Eco
Conversation with Frances Saunders

Umberto Eco spoke with Newsweek's Frances Saunders recently in his labyrinthine Milan apartment, where ordered chaos serves as kind of a metaphor for his latest novel. He confirmed that there is indeed a real "Foucault's Pendulum" -- a 19th century device employed to demonstrate that the earth revolves upon its own axis -- which hands today in Paris, at the Conservatorie des Arts et Métiers. This pendulum plays a dramatic role at the story's climax, but for Eco it has become an ironic symbol as well. "It makes me laugh when people find things in my work which aren't there," he says. "It's like the movement of the pendulum: as the characters in the book pursue this search for meaning, so the reader is gradually drawn into doing the same." Some readers "really go too far, and I want to say 'Hang on a minute, Calm down!'"
Eco says he thinks of Foucault's Pendulum as "a novel of ideas, an adventure of ideas. I would like to do with ideas what Finnegans Wake does with words. But it's got to be exciting, a shoot-out of ideas like a shoot-out in the Westerns." He's annoyed when critics accuse him of rehashing ideas gleaned from his literary predecessors. "Listen, so-called postmodernist literature is the literature of citation. All literature has always been a borrowing. It starts with Homer. What do you think Ariosto was doing, or Cervantes? I would say that this continual intertextuality is the principle characteristic of literature. The difference is that now the game has become intentional, has been discovered, whereas before it was covered over."
Eco claims that he deplores the publicity that has attended his two novels, but the only alternative would be not to publish, an even more depressing prospect. "When I heard that people were refusing to read the book on account of the hype in the media, I was totally sympathetic. It's much better to let a good interval pass before reading contemporary literature. Oh, God, I'm only now reading Samuel Pepys!"

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