When summarized, the plot of Foucault’s Pendulum sounds curiously similar to that of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). The resemblance has not escaped Umberto Eco, who once told a reporter, “I invented Dan Brown.” By this he meant that he invented “the plan” and the paranoid interpretation of texts that makes conspiracies out of mere resemblances. He did not invent the story of the Templar treasure or the map to it; rather, he found that story in books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), whose authors sued Brown unsuccessfully for copyright violation. Eco’s novel warns against the kinds of crazy connections that Brown and his protagonist both make. He gives his protagonist, Casaubon, a name that alludes both to the Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon, who dated the occult works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and to a character in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872) who seeks a “key to all mythologies.”
Following the success of his first and most famous novel, Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983), Eco began a second mystery about the perils of reading. Like its predecessor, Foucault’s Pendulum could be called a novel about death by reading: Just as the prejudices of an old librarian make reading dangerous for his monastic community in the former text, the obsessions of modern occultists threaten the lives of people who publish their favorite books in the latter text.
Though framed as a crime novel, Foucault’s Pendulum has much in common with the occult literature it satirizes. The novel is organized into ten sections, corresponding to the ten emanations, or sephirah, on the Kabbalistic tree of life. It has 120 chapters, corresponding to the rulers, or archons, in some gnostic systems. Each chapter includes an epigraph from a book of occult learning. The characteristics of the emanations are incorporated into the novel’s dialogue, as are the themes of the epigraphs, as form follows content.
As a book about books, Foucault’s Pendulum is stronger on ideas and satire than on character and plot. Some reviewers, such as the novelist Salman Rushdie, have found it entirely lacking in these respects. Nevertheless, while Belbo and others are mainly mouthpieces for Eco’s witticisms and...
(The entire section is 967 words.)