In a world where Dan Brown novels are regarded by many as being semi-academic, re-examinations of histories more controversial ecclesiastical theories, thank The Lord (pun intended) for Umberto Eco. He is best known for The Name of The Rose a medieval whodunit since made into a successful film, but as a novelist, literary critic, philosopher and university lecturer, Eco wrote on a wide range of topics from academic essays to children’s stories. He was a semiotician, a devotee of the real life study of signs, symbolism, meaning and metaphor (ironically much like Robert Langdon’s made up title of Symbologist) and it is often his application of the allegorical that drives this book’s subtle and complex plot weave.
The story revolves around three employees, Belbo, Casaubon and Diotallevi, who work for a publishing house and in an effort to relieve the boredom of dealing with the mainly vanity works that their company handles, they decide to invent their own conspiracy theories, known to them as The Plan. As the book, told mainly through flashbacks and recollections, progresses, their immersion in The Plan causes the line between invention and possibility, fiction and fact to blur and once other conspiracy theorists begin not only taking up but elaborating on these ideas, they find themselves no longer the puppet masters but pawns in a far more dangerous game.
My love of the book is driven not only by Eco’s sumptuous use of language, but his almost satirical approach towards the whole idea of conspiracy theory. Whereas most books working in this field try to inflict their two pence worth of opinion, to add to the conclusions rather than examine the premise, Foucault’s Pendulum does just the opposite. It shows just how shallow and transparent such theories can be yet still be escalated to fever pitch and taken as fact by those looking for answers. The three characters themselves evolve from skeptics to true believers in this fantasy world they have created, using even the most tenuous of events from the established historical record on which to hang their own parallel history.
Reviewing this in 2017 I find that one more aspect of the book sounds out clear. Although written in the pre-social media late eighties, it can almost be seen as an unintended prophecy regarding alternative facts and the ability to create false realities and disseminate them through the ranks of the needy and the vulnerable in society. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the information that they weave to build The Plan, in Eco’s usual way it is well researched, wide reaching, plausible, weaving truth and fabrication but resulting in a web of events and information which on the surface at least is as justifiable and intricate as any moon landing, Roswell or JFK assassination theories that seem so enduring.
It is a deep, rich and thought-provoking book, its use of language is both eloquent and accessible, poetic and narrative driven and it is a book that only Umberto Eco could have written. If you have any interest in history, conspiracy theory, alternative facts, academia or just great story telling then a stack of Dan Brown’s novels are essential, but only to use as a platform to reach Foucault’s Pendulum sitting in its place of honour on your highest book shelf.