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Monday, 6 February 2006

Review: Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1989)

His enthusiasm for the Plan came from his ambition to write a book. No matter if the book were made entirely of errors, intentional, deadly errors. As long as you remain in your private vacuum, you can pretend you are in harmony with the One. But the moment you pick up the clay, electronic or otherwise, you become a demiurge, and he who embarks on the creation of worlds is already tainted with corruption and evil.

(Sounds like the dilemma facing the author of a blog: to write or not to write…)

Jacopo Belbo, the would-be writer referred to in the above passage (his writing is, actually, not very good), is employed by a publishing house — a perfect place to find in abundance the kind of esoteric material this novel's author clearly relishes. The novel also opens in a museum — again, an ideal location for the author to indulge in his favourite pastime. Umberto Eco is a learned man, and Foucault's Pendulum is a structure that is stuffed to the rafters with arcana of a highly specialised kind. But while it is often humorous and entertaining in the end it goes off like a damp squib.

The publishing firm is headed by a caricature of a philistine named Garamond who decides, for purely commercial reasons, to encourage the submission of manuscripts dealing with the history of magic. Belbo makes friends with the narrator, a PhD student named Casaubon, who writes his thesis on the subject of the Knights Templar. Everything follows from these simple ingredients. The mystery accumulates in a barrage of theories as the protagonists work their own magic upon the problem: what eventually happened to the Templars and their ancient wisdom? There are other characters in this story, of course, but they rarely and faintly impinge upon Eco's consciousness. If you are interested in the history of the Illuminati or the Rosicrucians, then this book contains a little bit of everything that you will like.

There's also a cop named De Angelis and a taxidermist named Salon who pop up periodically to keep the drama alive.

The prose can often be blithe and haughty:

In Milan, Amparo's disenchantment had been one of her most desirable traits. But in Brazil, reacting to the chemistry of her native land, she became elusive, a visionary capable of subterranean rationality. Stirred by ancient passions, she was careful to keep them in check; but the asceticism which made her reject their seduction was not convincing.

Eco attempts to keep our interest not only through the dramatic mechanism of the crime and the plot line that the policeman is associated with — the 'serious' aspect of the tale that the narrator cannot ignore, regardless of his personal antipathy to this aspect of his life — but also by writing memorably:

In time I lost any sense of contradiction, just as I gradually abandoned any attempt to distinguish the different races in that land of age-old, unbridled hybridization [Brazil]. I gave up trying to establish where progress lay, and where revolution, or to see the plot — as Amparo's comrades expressed it — of capitalism. How could I continue to think like a European once I learned that the hopes of the far left were kept alive by a Nordeste bishop suspected of having harboured Nazi sympathies in his youth but who now faithfully and fearlessly held high the torch of revolt, upsetting the wary Vatican and the barracudas of Wall Street, and joyfully inflaming the atheism of the proletarian mystics won over by the tender yet menacing banner of a Beautiful Lady who, pierced by seven sorrows, gazed down on the sufferings of her people?

With a light touch, Eco often deflates the pomposity that creeps into the narrative in its endless pursuit of knowledge by employing rapid shifts in tone, and by introducing incongruities; the shift from ancient to modern can be sudden and humorous:

The Breaking of the Vessels. Diotallevi was to talk to us often about the late cabalism of Isaac Luria, in which the orderly articulation of the Sefirot was lost. Creation, Luria held, was a process of divine inhalation and exhalation, like anxious breathing or the action of a bellow.
  "God's asthma," Belbo glossed.
  "You try creating from nothing. It’s something you do once in your life. God blows the world as you would blow a glass bubble, and to do that He takes a deep breath, holds it, and emits the long luminous hiss of the ten Sefirot."
  "A hiss of light?"
  "Multimedia."

Accompanying this tendency to humour and lightness of tone, however, is a feeling that the novel lacks a solid centre. The dominance of the publishing-house ambience in the book is rarely broken by any other setting, any other colour. The ambience of the bar Pilade is hardly broached. Minor characters are rarely employed except to further the erudite disquisitions that make up the greater part of the novel. As a result, the construction is rather loose. A publishing house is a weak centre around which to build a mystery. It's a convenient portal for all kinds of arcane visitations but it lacks specific gravity. The main characters don’t grow or develop along a discernable line of progression, and remain 'types' to the end.

Also, the dialog can sometimes be very writerly and unnatural — a symptom of Eco's broad scholarship — as if, regardless of the character speaking at any moment, we can always hear his authorial voice in the background. When he does try to use a different voice — as he does when depicting Amparo — the effect is unconvincing and strained; a false note in the unbroken recitation of highfalutin jargon. When Lia suddenly breaks out into a long monologue, having been silent for so long, it is hard to view the words as her own, rather than the author's. Half-way through the book I felt that the Boy’s-Own glamour of Eco's endeavour had begun to wear a bit thin. There’s little suspense despite new clues to the larger puzzle coming to light. Little suspense and little drama.

Sometimes Eco makes connections that the reader cannot feel to be natural nor can the reader remember the past moment in the narrative that is being referred to. This is sad, but inevitable when the writer's focus remains fixed, as it does in this novel, on the utterances of a small number of characters inhabiting a restricted world. Transitions such as the following stifle the reader’s interest: "When I got back, I told the story to Belbo and Diavoletti, and we ventured various hypotheses." But this sentence is typical of the kind of fictional device the author prefers, as if he could not think of anything more compelling to push the plot along.

As he approaches the finale, Eco's judgement becomes slack and he sometimes abandons the long sentences of his expository style for the short bursts characteristic of bad crime novels:

Unexpectedly, I found the staircase. I went down, with increasing caution. Midnight was approaching. I had to hide in my observation post before They arrived.

The short sentences can't still his insistence on naming things. As the tension of the final chapters attempts to increase, the narrator names everything that happens to him, everything he sees. The tension dissipates in the effluvia of Eco's obsession with lists:

At the corner of the rue de Birague, I see the line of arcades, infinite, without a living soul. I want darkness, not these yellow street lamps. I could cry out, but no one would hear me. Behind all the closed windows, through which not a thread of light escapes, the taxidermists in their yellow smocks will snicker.

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