I was once told by someone extremely wise that the best thing about Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose, is that it didn’t disappear up its own arsehole like so many of his other books. He’s Irish, so the extra “r” and “e” are his, but he is also a critically acclaimed writer, so it’s necessary to keep his opinion in mind.
Since I actually thought that TNOTR is brilliant on many levels apart from the anatomical, so I proceeded to purchase Foucault’s Pendulum, and place it in my TBR file, where it gathered dust for some time before I finally cracked it open. And then I couldn’t put it down.
Does it disappear into dark cavities? Well, yes, I have to admit that it does, a bit.
Is it worth it? Yes. You see, the intricate texture of the book, the way it weaves together everything Eco could find on different pseudo-Christian secret societies in history is hugely fascinating, although once Eco starts doing his completist thing, it’s easy to understand why the sheer volume of info can turn people off to the book. But not me – and, I suspect, not anyone who loves learning about history’s strange little nooks and crannies.
It is, essentially a conspiracy theory book, a kind of Da Vinci Code for deeper thinkers and skeptics (disclaimer: I enjoyed the Dan Brown book, so please feel free to dismiss anything I may say from here on out!), except it seems to take into consideration ALL of the theories that state that there is “more than meets the eye” with regards to where the world’s ultimate power – or at least that in the western world – lies. It shows you what kind of theories could be born if the regular theorists were also extremely good at research, as opposed to the more feeble-minded exponents that make up the majority of the group.
I have always thought that conspiracy theorists were a bit deluded at best. At worst, they seem to be the kind of people who can’t bear to face that, when they fail, it is their own fault, and not that of some shadowy power. If they are powerless, it is because power, riches and glory generally go hand-in-hand with both talent, perseverance and hard work.
Eco seems to share these feelings, but he has a genuine affection for humanity’s weaknesses that comes through in his text, and it is this which makes the deeply-flawed characters in his book come to life. Yes, everyone in here is a caricature, more an idea than an actual human, but they are ideas that represent the perfect initial conditions for the ultimate in conspiracy theories. And while the characters are parts of humans, they are extremely human. We see many of our own hopes, fears and desires painted on the canvas of his good guys and bad guys.
This book is clearly a Cosmic joke on Eco’s part. He is certainly poking gentle fun at the kind of people who will twist history and science with a foregone pseudo-scientific conclusion in mind, but one feels that he isn’t necessarily laughing cruelly at them, but more ribbing them affectionately for their own human foibles, but in a way that only a scholarly genius could possibly pull off.
We should also stop to mention that the whole thing is one long series of cultural and literary allusions. Anyone even slightly widely-read will enjoy the satisfaction of spotting the little nuggets tossed in, almost carelessly, to give the book texture. The most amazing thing is that the pockets of knowledge break up what is, in essence, a huge speculative history lesson.
And, of course, any book that tosses in an offhand reference to Finnegan’s Wake, while assuming the reader has read and understood it gets major kudos in my book – for sardonic irony if nothing else.
This one is a delight to read.
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