Monday, March 11, 2024

the last book I read

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Meet our narrator, Casaubon. Why is he called Casaubon? Or, more accurately, why has the author decided to give him that name, and what did he expect the reader to take from it? Well, briefly, Isaac Casaubon was a classical scholar and philologist in the 16th and 17th centuries (his son Meric studied in similar areas) and there is also a character of the same name in George Eliot's Middlemarch (a book I have not read, I should point out, and am 99% sure I never will).

Bloody hell, you might be thinking at this point, I'm only on page one of a 600+-page book and already I need to have access to an online encyclopaedia to keep up with all the meta-textual references and stuff. How am I going to cope for the rest of the six freakin' years it's going to take me to finish it?

Well, you'll have to find your own coping strategy, but what I would offer is that you should probably come to a Zen-like acceptance that your level of unassisted erudition is almost certainly not equal to Umberto Eco's and that you're probably going to miss the significance of a reference here or there. By all means look something up if it piques your interest, but don't spend months and years looking up every single name; in any case some of them will be made up. To put it another way, get over yourself and just read the freakin' book already.

So: when we first meet Casaubon he is in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, looking at the eponymous pendulum and musing on the physical laws that govern its motion. It turns out he's not just there to have a look at that, though, as Mysterious Shit is afoot which necessitates him secreting himself in the museum after closing time and awaiting the arrival of a group of people to carry out some arcane ritual. What ritual? How does Casaubon know about it? Why does he care? That will take a 500-page flashback to explain.

Some years previously, Casaubon, a devotee of arcane lore about secret societies and the Knights Templar in particular, is living in Milan when he meets Belbo and Diotallevi, who work for a publisher called Garamond and want to make use of his particular area of knowledge to review a manuscript that's come into their possession. Garamond, it turns out, is a serious publishing house but also operates a separate arm which does vanity publishing for nutters with enough money to self-finance their crackpot books. This is all a lot of fun, but the guy who submitted the original manuscript, Colonel Ardenti, suddenly disappears in mysterious circumstances. Could there be something in his conspiratorial ravings after all?

Casaubon spends some time living with a woman in Brazil and while he's there meets an elderly man called Agliè who introduces him to various local voodoo rituals, suggests that these and the whole Templar thing are all interconnected in some way, and hints that he may in fact be the near-immortal Comte de Saint Germain. Casaubon's relationship eventually goes to shit and he returns to Italy, where he discovers that Garamond have taken on Agliè as some sort of consultant and that Belpo and Diotallevi have really ramped up the Templar conspiracy angle. Belpo has acquired an early home computer and is experimenting with feeding in all sorts of stuff and having the computer spit out plausible links: the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Jews, the Nazis, you name it. 

Again, this is all tremendous fun and generates a series of increasingly outlandish, wide-ranging, interlinked theories which Belpo, Diotallevi and Casaubon call "the Plan". It's all just a lot of imaginative weaving together of disparate conspiracy elements with no basis in reality, though, isn't it? OR IS IT? Easy to dismiss the cancer that ravages Diotallevi as just a coincidence, rather than some sort of karmic retribution for meddling with things that should not be meddled with; not so easy for Belpo to dismiss the feeling that he's being followed and perhaps manipulated by sinister forces, especially Agliè who seems very interested in knowing everything that Belpo knows about the Plan. 

Eventually Belpo is blackmailed into travelling to Paris to meet with Agliè and his associates at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, which you'll recall is where we came in. Once the shady group has convened and Casaubon has extricated himself from his cramped hiding-place to observe their nefarious activities, a bizarre ritual ensues involving much in the way of voodoo incantations, ectoplasm, speaking in tongues and the like and culminating in Belbo's death. Casaubon, while escaping unseen, nonetheless feels certain that They, whoever They actually are, are Onto Him, and flees to the country, abandoning his wife and young child, to await them inevitably catching up with him.

So *cracks knuckles* what the hell is going on there then? Well, lots of different things, some of which almost certainly went over your humble blogger's head entirely unnoticed. There's obviously some satire on people exploiting the lucrative market for the sort of Grail/Templar hokum put about by books like The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail (published six years before Foucault's Pendulum, in 1982) and, many years later, The Da Vinci Code, some further satire on vanity publishing in general and still further satire on the sort of post-modern school of criticism and philosophy that completely unhitches itself from any necessity to check in with the real world to see if what you're saying actually makes any sense. The Foucault of the book's title is obviously the pendulum's inventor Léon Foucault, but also quite probably Michel Foucault, philosopher, activist, and slightly queasy advocate of underage sex.

But what are we to make of the intersections with the real world, in particular the Night At The Museum interlude at the end where Belpo and his girlfriend Lorenza appear to be actually killed? There's no mention of the police arriving either on the night or the following morning when the museum opens and various murder victims are presumably found cluttering up the exhibits. Did any of it actually happen? 

Trying to apply any sort of gritty real-world seriousness here is probably a mistake, though, as it's all just a fabulously droll and playful post-modern joke, albeit one that in my view drags a bit in the telling. Some of the passages where Belpo, Diotallevi and Casaubon expound at great length on increasingly convoluted iterations of the Plan really start to go on a bit and have the feel of authorial showing-off. None of the characters here really give off any feel of behaving like actual humans; the closest is probably Casaubon's wife Lia, but even she displays implausible levels of arcane knowledge while trying to debunk the wilder excesses of the Plan, and is in any case roundly ignored for her trouble. 

So it's all tremendously clever, and generally pretty easy to read, though some will find the lumpiness of the structure and the length of some of the more treacly expository passages off-putting, or at least frustrating. For what it's worth I enjoyed The Name Of The Rose quite a lot more. 

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