Return of Ecomania

A successor to The Name of the Rose sweeps Italy


By Otto Friedrich, with reporting from Cathy Booth

Time, March 6, 1986

Many a university professor daydreams about someday casting aside his footnotes and writing a splashy novel that will sell millions of copies and make him rich. Umberto Eco, 57, a bearded and bespectacled professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, fulfilled exactly that daydream eight years ago, when he concocted his mega-macro-medieval-mystery hit The Name of the Rose. He wrote part of the best seller in a 50-room country retreat near Urbino that he bought and restored himself and where he spends his leisure hours expanding his 40,000-volume collection of antique books and playing the recorder in his bathroom (because the acoustics are best there.)
That bizarre scenario might seem impossible for even a semiotician to duplicate. But guess again. Eco has produced another novel, Foucault's Pendulum, which has sold more than half a million copies in Italy since it was published last October and at one point outsold the next highest best seller by 15 to 1. Translation rights have been assigned in 24 countries, and an English version by William Weaver will be published in the U.S. next October. Once again the Italian press has orchestrated what it calls Ecomania with cries of delight and outrage. One newspaper praised Foucault's Pendulum as "the novel of the '90s" while the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano denounced it for "vulgarities."
Not the least odd aspect of the affair is that Foucault's Pendulum is not so much a thriller as a complicated parable that contains pages and pages of erudite details about such medieval phenomena as the Knights Templar, the Cathars and the Order of Assassins. And Eco steadfastly refuses to explain what his mysterious novel is all about. "This was a book conceived to irritate the reader," he says in his drafty university office, lighting up another of the 60 cigarettes he puffs everyday. "I knew it would provoke ambiguous, nonhomogeneous responses because it was a book conceived to point up some contradictions."
The plot, embedded in the 500 pages of mystic history, concerns three editors in a Milan publishing house who are working on a series about the occult arts. The become fascinated by a secret plan supposedly concocted by the Knights Templar to dominate the world by harnessing its magnetic currents. The Templars, Eco explains in a 20-page aside, were one of the great military monastic orders at the time of the Crusades and were suppressed after the King of France accused them, probably falsely, of homosexuality and sorcery.
The editors become convinced that they can somehow unravel the Templars' scheme if they put a secret map under Foucault's pendulum, a device invented by the 19th century physicist Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault to measure the earth's rotation. The pendulum, which is still in Paris today, will supposedly indicate a site at which the earth's vital currents can be controlled, earthquakes can be created, and so on.
Eco periodically interrupts his narrative for learned disquisitions on magic and the supernatural, on the Arians, the Druids, the Cabala, the Freemasons, modern-day Brazilian Umbanda, on such celebrated 18 century sorcerers as Cagliostro and the Count of Saint-Germain, even on such hoaxes as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. While the three explorers are pursuing their experiment, some occultist zealots find out about it and threaten to kill them unless they surrender the Templars' secret.
Only in a rare interview, in La Repubblica, did Eco venture to explain that his novel "is the story of all the cosmic plots that people truly imagine. It is the story of a cancer afflicting the spirit. The thriller aspect, the anguish, the uncertainty, are the consequences of this psychosis of suspiciously interpreting nature, society, the world, the text." Is that all quite clear? "The answer is there in 500 pages," says Eco, parrying further questions. "If I had a shorter answer, I would have written a book of 200 pages." As for anyone else's answers, Eco simply says he does not want to "impose my interpretation on the reader."
The Italian press, of course, has offered all kinds of answers. Maria Corti, writing in L'Indice, declared that Eco's chief message is that a "rational explanation of the world is improbable, even unlikely." Critic Enzo Golino, writing for a socialist magazine, suggested that "Foucault's Pendulum is a gigantic psycho-analysis of history that questions a revealing aspect of today's Western civilization: the return of irrationality and the illusion of rationality." Others have been less respectful, using semiotic signs like faticaccia (exhausting work) and uggiosissimo (roughly, dullsville to the max). Some magazines have published elaborate plot outlines, diagrams, glossaries of occult terminology. Eco, theorizes sociologist and critic Francesco Alberoni, "satisfies some deep need . . . not to remain at the superficiality of things." The magazine L'Europeo suggested that the only people who like the book -- or indeed have read it -- are the author's friends.
Eco will at least offer some thoughts on how his book came about. "One answer," he says, "is that at age 48 I wrote the first novel of my life, and then I had the problem of understanding whether it was an exception, a mere accident or the beginning of something new. Suppose a vicious dog chases you, and to escape you jump over a river. Once you've done this, you wonder if it was chance or could you do it a second time? Also, obviously I had something more to say." Whatever that might be.
Now that he has made a second killing in the fiction sweepstakes, Eco is trying to return to the decent obscurity of academe (he still lectures three days a week to some 200 students in Bologna.) In April the Harvard University Press will reissue two scholarly works. He is working these days on what he describes only as being "on the borderline of semiotics and philosophy." He is still fascinated by St. Thomas of Aquinas and Superman, on both of whom he has written learnedly. He is readying a collection of scholarly essays in English, and he has no plans for any new novels. One every ten years, he says, is quite enough.


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