This was my second attempt at Umberto Eco's novel, the first time I only got through about half of the book before giving it up in favor of, simply put- more "exciting" books. I picked it up again because I had to read a book about secret societies for a reading challenge on goodreads.com and the only alternative was Dan Brown's Angels and Demons (and I'm not that keen on Dan Brown's writing style). In the end, once I tried to think everything through, the book proved to be amazing, provoking and completely worth my time and patience.
summary (via Amazon & Publishers Weekly)
The narrator, Casaubon, an expert on the medieval Knights Templars, and two editors working in a branch of a vanity press publishing house in Milan, are told about a purported coded message revealing a secret plan set in motion by the Knights Templars centuries ago when the society was forced underground. As a lark, the three decide to invent a history of the occult tying a variety of phenomena to the mysterious machinations of the Order. Feeding their inspirations into a computer, they become obsessed with their story, dreaming up links between the Templars and just about every occult manifestation throughout history, and predicting that culmination of the Templars' scheme to take over the world is close at hand. The plan becomes real to them--and eventually to the mysterious They, who want the information the trio has "discovered.''
I think that one of the things that drives people away from this book is the fact that they take it much to seriously, its charm lies in mockery and sarcasm. The fact that Eco mocks popular historical thrillers is undoubted and many readers pick up on that, or at least expect the book (written by an European scholar) to be like that, but what a lot of people don't see is that the mockery expands much beyond that. More than a book about secret societies, it's a book about books- writing books, editing books, publishing book, reading books. After a lifetime spent making the world a juster place through editing books, Belbo buys a personal computer and names it Abulafia not because he wants to play around with Kabbalah, but because he wants to write. They years haven't made him give up his teenage dream of becoming a writer. Diotallevi on the other hand is the editor. He loves his job because it allows him to pretend he's a Kabbalist, the same way the fact that he's an orphan allows him to he claim/pretend to be a Jew. Mr Garamond introduces us to the world of vanity publishers and you can't help but laugh at the things he says. Actually, I think you should laugh at all the characters because they all take themselves much too seriously -they're all intellectual independent middle aged men, yet they all behave like children. The first three hundred pages of the book where almost nothing happens are much easier to digest if you look at things in a light hearted manner, instead of trying to find some complicated connections between Eco's novel and Foucault's philosophy (and by the way, he did say that the pun was not intended, but he's a very cunning author so I have my doubts).
But, of course, Eco mocks you too, for being a reader of historical thrillers and for expecting his book to be an exciting read. I'm almost sure he feels a great deal of pleasure whenever somebody tells him the book is boring and that he should've gotten a better editor, the author doesn't feel the need to hold the reader's attention because he doesn't want to produce a "page turner", he wants to tease you. Although it was published before The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I think we as witnesses of their phenomenal popularity can enjoy Eco's book all the more. Because in Foucault's Pendulum we encounter all kinds of people who blindly believe in all kinds of books. How many people do you know who believe that Dan Brown's novels hold some truth?
If you look at the book even deep you discover it's very ingenious and funny. I'm quite proud of my theory about Casaubon the narrator-character and judging by the book's complicated structure (memories are involuntary) also the author (and editor) of the text. The first thing that doesn't tie in with the plot is the book's structure itself. When did Casaubon have the time to write such a complicated long novel? He says he arrives at the the Canepas house/mannor at six in the evening and that as he's writing the last two chapter of the book it's already three a.m. But how is it possible to write a 600 pages novel in 9 hours? The answer is very simple- it's not. Let's assume for the sake of the argument that Casaubon only has to write 500 pages and the rest are Belbo's documents, let's also assume that each pages has on average 250 words and we'll reach the conclusion that the novel has 125 000 words. A good average handwriting speed is 20 wpm, thus 1200 words per hour, at which you could write 10 800 words in 9 hours. Casaubon couldn't finish the book in 9 hours even if he wrote ten times faster than that. Also odd are the numerous refrences to books and scientific papers, unless you're Funes you just can't remember Latin title of book if it has more than 20 words.
I don't think that Umberto Eco can be that sloppy about his writings, I read his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods a few weeks ago and I simply can't imagine how somebody who understands how important time and temporal clues are in a story to completely ignore time in his. I've read that some people think Casaubon is so caught in the Plan and that he imagines/hallucinates all the events in the last part of the novel, but I prefer a more innocent theory. I think Casaubon really is an unreliable narrator, but in the sense that the whole story he tells is false. Obviously, we usually think that fiction is made up, but here the narrator is trying to trick us into believing that the story he tells is true at least in the context of the novel. Moreover, Foucault's Pendulum tells so much about people who thought books were true, when they were actually made up. Either way, I think Eco manages to make the reader a character in the novel beautifully because whether you believe Casaubon is telling the truth or that he's trying to trick you you've fallen under the books spell- either by believing everything you read, or by seeing conspiracies and theories everywhere.