by Umberto Eco, William Weaver, William Weaver,
Post Your Opinion
by Don Nichol
FEW FIRST NOVELS have had a better reception than 11 nome delta Rose (1980). Published in English in 1983, The Name of the Rose -- "Naturally, a manuscript" -- then had the remarkable fortune of being filmed as "a palimpsest" by jeanJacques Annaud.
A decade ago, Umberto Eco was a University of Bologna professor known to a select academic few as the author of a pioneering book on semiotics -- the study of signs and their meaning in the transfer of any kind of data, especially language and literature. Now he has assumed the mantle of scholar-celebrity who can synthesize every esoteric development between Creation and Casablanca.
Foucault`s Pendulum is what happens when cabalists meet the computer, when hermits swing to hermeneutics, when poststructuralists deconstruct. Here we have a printout of the 720 permutations of the letters "lahveh" (not counting repetitions), chapter headings on the deconstruction of the name Phileas Fogg, and diagrams like the rune of the symbolic points of the Holy Grail, which resembles the constellation of the Virgin when looked at from a particular angle (which also happens to look like the plot squiggle in Tristram Shandy). As Eco unearths various dead ends, and as the search for the Grail becomes more exciting than the thought of attaining it, symbols become more important than their meanings.
Everything ancient and modern is grist for his criticism and fiction -- Artistotle arm-wrestles with Superman, Barthes boxes with Bogart, Indiana Jones vies with Aquinas. The reader often feels like Casaubon, the student-hero of philosophy in Foucault`s Pendulum, when he says,
I felt like 2 walking blender mixing con, coctions of different liquors. Or may he I had caused some kind of short circuit, tripping over a varicolored tangle of wires that had been entwining themselves for a long, long time.
One of the perplexing aspects of semiotics is that soon enough everything becomes a representative of something else: a rose is never a rose, but a mystery to be peeled off, petal by petal, revealing the unrevealable. The meaning changes depending on your mode, whether you
are a Burns, Roethke, Gertrude Stein, or an ardent horticulturist.
Eco is fascinated by mazes -- verbal, numerological, and actual -- as self-contained quests. The monastery in The Name of the Rose doubled as a maze with a forbidden book at its centre. Hide- and-seek becomes the opening motif of Foucault`s Pendulum. The novel opens with Casaubon hiding in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris, the location of the pendulum that demonstrates the earth`s rotation. He chooses for his hiding place a periscope -- that optical device which enables the seer to remain unseen. Yet, when Casaubon follows his Marxist-feminist Amparo to Brazil, he muses on the old rotational question of which way water swirls in a drain in the southern hemisphere -- counter-clockwise, clockwise? "Besides, if this is true, what happens at the equator? Maybe the water drains straight down, with no swirling, or maybe it doesn`t drain at all." Eco seems interested in science mainly as a back-up to symbolism: the pendulum as proof is a sham.
Eco isn`t afraid to send the whole thing UP, as if the novel-within-the-novel (which has been prefigured in an upsidedown mirror-image effect) is merely another aspect of the larger Plan. After Colonel Ardentis tells his intriguing theory of the Grail and the Templars of Provins, as if to burst the extraordinary bubble, Casaubon orders a Campari and his friend Diotallevi a root beer: "Root beer ... had a monkish, archaic taste, almost Templar."
Eco isn`t one for the slow development of character or situation. Casaubon can easily become bored, short tempered, or irritated. When it comes time to fall in love, he is as blunt as they come.
"Excuse me ... but I would like to make love to you."
"You`re a filthy male chauvinist pig."
"Forget I said it."
"Never. I`m a filthy feminist."
Names become pregnant with significance (as distinct from meaning): Foucault was not just a 19th-century pendulum-maker and demonstrator of the earth`s forces, but also a 20th-century French structuralist and reinterpreter of madness (a theme explored in The Name of the Rose). Casaubon was also a 16th-century classical scholar and editor of Aristotle whose Protestantism compelled him to move to London. The heavenly police inspector is called De Angelis, while his news-bearing messenger is Annunziata. Sometimes the game begs a facetious response: Belbo, well, let`s see, there`s Balboa, the explorer, or Bilbo, the Baggins...
Same too with numbers. Twenty-seven (the number of the room in which the ardent Colonel Ardenti may or may not have been garotted) adds up to nine, as does the number of Shakespeare`s plays in the 1623 First Folio -- 36 -- which happens to be the number that most intrigues Casaubon.
Yet in the wake of Monty Python`s parody of the search for the Holy Grail and the trivialization of the theme in the last Indiana Jones flick, one wonders what the chances of seeing Foucault`s Pendulum treated cinematically might be. Eco must wish he had been consulted by Spielberg on Hitler`s belief in the theory of hollow earth or quest for an omnipotent symbol or life-prolonging elixir. Fittingly, William of Baskerville and Professor Jones senior were both played by that fine Scottish Aristotelian actor, Sean Connery. William Weaver, who also translated The Name of the Rose, has generally done a superb job of rendering Foucault`s Pendulum into English. Eco`s -- or Casaubon`s -- wry, erudite, cabalistic sense of humour, however, doesn`t translate well to the North American marketplace, which isn`t accustomed to consulting a library before getting the punch line. if Eco`s The Name of the Rose put the lie to the idea that professors of literature and criticism (who keep novel typescripts in their bottom drawers) car* write, Foucault`s Pendulum proves that his first novel wasn`t just a one-off