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Eco’s ‘Pendulum’ Swings Sales Though Unread as ‘Rose’

<i> George Armstrong is the Rome correspondent for England's Guardian newspaper</i>

Umberto Eco has done it again. The 56-year-old Italian professor of semiotics, whose first novel, “The Name of the Rose,” has sold 800 million copies around the world since its 1980 publication, has what appears to be another international best seller: “Foucault’s Pendulum.”

Eco’s new work has already sold 600,000 copies in the first three months in Italy; it was found under many a Christmas tree last December. Even before then, Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper hired a survey firm to trace 101 purchasers of the book who had volunteered to give bookshops all over Italy their telephone numbers. After some five weeks, more than half of the book owners either had not begun it or had not read past 100 pages. Only 22 claimed to have completed all 509 pages. Similar circumstances were suspected when “Rose” became a hit, but no survey was conducted.

At the end of the year, Europeo, a Milan weekly magazine, threw a social life-preserver to the non-reading book owner. It printed a synopsis of the “Pendulum” plot (which itself concerns a plot). The synopsis was bewildering, running for several thousand words. Europeo next boiled that down to a few hundred words, or to a consomme impossible to sip much less digest.

The Italian critics seemed to be overwhelmingly favorable, though tending to be most in awe of Eco’s achievement and arcane learning.

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Only the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano, not usually known for its own clarity of exposition, grappled with “Pendulum” as if it were Old Nick, himself, and began spitting out abuse, such as calling the author “a scourge who deforms, desecrates and offends” and dismissing him as a “mystifier deluxe.” Well, Eco had confessed in an interview that the pendulum is “a metaphor for God.” He did not explain who God was.

“The Name of the Rose” had a story-line, repeatedly blurred, that covered seven days; it was written, as Eco stated, in mock-medieval style. The new book is “more Protestant and Baroque in rhythm,” he has said, and covers at least 700 years, even though its three central characters are contemporary. This is the sort of book James Joyce might have written had he owned a computer that could take into its memory every interesting thought or fact that crossed his ever-browsing mind. This book may be Eco’s “Finnegan’s Wake.”

Eco’s second novel, scheduled for U.S. publication in October by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, takes its title--and this much is certain--from the pendulum that the physicist Leon Foucault (1819-1868) built, and which goes on merrily swinging in the Paris Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. Foucault was also the inventor of the gyroscope, which could turn out to be another metaphor with significance as yet unrevealed.

“Foucault’s Pendulum” is a jokey book; there is a laugh on almost every page. Eco is as playful as Joyce, and as given to shifting language gears as often as the late Dubliner. Sections written in Hebrew adorn the book, for example. Both Joyce and Eco, of course, would know that our word “playfulness” does not translate into other languages.

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Even the old academic joke about some scholar writing his doctoral thesis on an unpublished laundry list belonging to James Joyce is woven into the pages of the new Eco book, itself a list of ideas and items that titillate the author’s mind. At some point, for example, the reader finds a character saying that the Paris sewer system is “at least real.” That is followed with the names of the sewer’s three architects: Real or made-up, it matters not.

Last year, in commenting on the success of his first novel, Eco could hardly be other than philosophical toward the critic who said, “Everyone bought it but few read it--real best sellers are bought by garage mechanics.” Eco’s response was that if only 10% of the copies of the “Rose” were actually read, it would still be a phenomenal international best seller, “proving that garage mechanics now are reading Joyce.”

Included in the pendulum’s wide swing are the Knights Templars, the first organized carpetbaggers to reach the Holy Land, a knight in those days being a plunderer who could beg, borrow or, preferably, steal a horse. While the knights were disbanded by Philip the Fair in 1312, by a royal act that cut off the lives of their leaders and wiped out the French king’s financial debt to the knights, Umberto Eco seems to tell his readers that they only went underground--and that they surface to carry out plots from time to time. Eco’s book last month stimulated a previously unknown group of Italian Templars, claiming to have 10,000 members, to petition Pope John Paul II for his patronage and protection, and blaming Eco for putting the noble knights of old in a bad light.

The author gives a good deal of space to the Jewish cabala, the occult philosophy of some rabbis in the Middle Ages; that could lead to its revival and put many astrologers’ necks out of joint. And Eco gives the Rosicrucians, who may be relative newcomers in a plot that concerns itself with “the meaning of the universe,” new lease on afterlife.

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“Foucault’s Pendulum” is the hottest game in Rome at the moment, even if the book is not being read through. Or seen through. It is a monument. It is a fraud. It is a scholarly prank. It is a new cottage industry in perpetual motion. Open the book, blindfolded, put your finger on a printed line, savor the words and let that page’s numeration guide you in all endeavors that day. You could do worse, and you could be wiser.


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