By Otto Friedrich, with reporting
from Cathy Booth
Time, March 6, 1986
a university professor daydreams about someday casting aside
his footnotes and writing a splashy novel that will sell millions
of copies and make him rich. Umberto Eco, 57, a bearded and bespectacled
professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, fulfilled
exactly that daydream eight years ago, when he concocted his
mega-macro-medieval-mystery hit The Name of the Rose.
He wrote part of the best seller in a 50-room country retreat
near Urbino that he bought and restored himself and where he
spends his leisure hours expanding his 40,000-volume collection
of antique books and playing the recorder in his bathroom (because
the acoustics are best there.)
bizarre scenario might seem impossible for even a semiotician
to duplicate. But guess again. Eco has produced another novel,
Foucault's Pendulum, which has sold more than half a million
copies in Italy since it was published last October and at one
point outsold the next highest best seller by 15 to 1. Translation
rights have been assigned in 24 countries, and an English version
by William Weaver will be published in the U.S. next October.
Once again the Italian press has orchestrated what it calls Ecomania
with cries of delight and outrage. One newspaper praised Foucault's
Pendulum as "the novel of the '90s" while the Vatican's
L'Osservatore Romano denounced it for "vulgarities."
the least odd aspect of the affair is that Foucault's Pendulum
is not so much a thriller as a complicated parable that contains
pages and pages of erudite details about such medieval phenomena
as the Knights Templar, the Cathars and the Order of Assassins.
And Eco steadfastly refuses to explain what his mysterious novel
is all about. "This was a book conceived to irritate the
reader," he says in his drafty university office, lighting
up another of the 60 cigarettes he puffs everyday. "I knew
it would provoke ambiguous, nonhomogeneous responses because
it was a book conceived to point up some contradictions."
plot, embedded in the 500 pages of mystic history, concerns three
editors in a Milan publishing house who are working on a series
about the occult arts. The become fascinated by a secret plan
supposedly concocted by the Knights Templar to dominate the world
by harnessing its magnetic currents. The Templars, Eco explains
in a 20-page aside, were one of the great military monastic orders
at the time of the Crusades and were suppressed after the King
of France accused them, probably falsely, of homosexuality and
editors become convinced that they can somehow unravel the Templars'
scheme if they put a secret map under Foucault's pendulum, a
device invented by the 19th century physicist Jean-Bernard-Léon
Foucault to measure the earth's rotation. The pendulum, which
is still in Paris today, will supposedly indicate a site at which
the earth's vital currents can be controlled, earthquakes can
be created, and so on.
periodically interrupts his narrative for learned disquisitions
on magic and the supernatural, on the Arians, the Druids, the
Cabala, the Freemasons, modern-day Brazilian Umbanda, on such
celebrated 18 century sorcerers as Cagliostro and the Count of
Saint-Germain, even on such hoaxes as the Protocols of the Learned
Elders of Zion. While the three explorers are pursuing their
experiment, some occultist zealots find out about it and threaten
to kill them unless they surrender the Templars' secret.
in a rare interview, in La Repubblica, did Eco venture
to explain that his novel "is the story of all the cosmic
plots that people truly imagine. It is the story of a cancer
afflicting the spirit. The thriller aspect, the anguish, the
uncertainty, are the consequences of this psychosis of suspiciously
interpreting nature, society, the world, the text." Is that
all quite clear? "The answer is there in 500 pages,"
says Eco, parrying further questions. "If I had a shorter
answer, I would have written a book of 200 pages." As for
anyone else's answers, Eco simply says he does not want to "impose
my interpretation on the reader."
Italian press, of course, has offered all kinds of answers. Maria
Corti, writing in L'Indice, declared that Eco's chief message
is that a "rational explanation of the world is improbable,
even unlikely." Critic Enzo Golino, writing for a socialist
magazine, suggested that "Foucault's Pendulum is
a gigantic psycho-analysis of history that questions a revealing
aspect of today's Western civilization: the return of irrationality
and the illusion of rationality." Others have been less
respectful, using semiotic signs like faticaccia (exhausting
work) and uggiosissimo (roughly, dullsville to the max).
Some magazines have published elaborate plot outlines, diagrams,
glossaries of occult terminology. Eco, theorizes sociologist
and critic Francesco Alberoni, "satisfies some deep need
. . . not to remain at the superficiality of things." The
magazine L'Europeo suggested that the only people who
like the book -- or indeed have read it -- are the author's friends.
will at least offer some thoughts on how his book came about.
"One answer," he says, "is that at age 48 I wrote
the first novel of my life, and then I had the problem of understanding
whether it was an exception, a mere accident or the beginning
of something new. Suppose a vicious dog chases you, and to escape
you jump over a river. Once you've done this, you wonder if it
was chance or could you do it a second time? Also, obviously
I had something more to say." Whatever that might be.
that he has made a second killing in the fiction sweepstakes,
Eco is trying to return to the decent obscurity of academe (he
still lectures three days a week to some 200 students in Bologna.)
In April the Harvard University Press will reissue two scholarly
works. He is working these days on what he describes only as
being "on the borderline of semiotics and philosophy."
He is still fascinated by St. Thomas of Aquinas and Superman,
on both of whom he has written learnedly. He is readying a collection
of scholarly essays in English, and he has no plans for any new
novels. One every ten years, he says, is quite enough.
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