An Intellectual Da Vinci Code
In the year of The Da Vinci Code movie (which has grossed a worldwide total of $753,984,548), and after the novel has spent a couple of years on the bestseller list, I thought I’d be a real snob and read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. While they share similar occultist backgrounds, Foucault’s Pendulum (FP) is altogether a superior read and reveals the Da Vinci Code for what it truly is – lame.
I know it’s not fair to compare the two books, but because Dan Brown’s bubblegum epic is so popular right now, it’s hard not to draw comparisons, and I can’t help but think that Brown must have read FP, as it predates Da Vinci by fifteen years at least. In fact, Brown could probably make thirty novels out of all the stuff that’s in FP.
Both books deal with the Holy Grail. Though while Da Vinci makes the Holy Grail its raison d’etre, with a traditional quest-type story, FP uses the grail ephemerally; it’s always sort of there, but in the background. The main story in FP is a quest for truth, but truth within oneself. Da Vinci and FP are built around the idea that human history is full of elaborate cover-ups and conspiracies to hide the truth from the human population. Da Vinci posits that the Grail is not a cup, but is in fact a bloodline, dating back to offspring produced by Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene and through to present day.
FP is much more elaborate but concerns three publishers who, while writing a series of books about the Occult, gather information and create an alternate history of mankind, one in which the Knights Templar, the Cathars, the Illuminati, the Masons, etc. are all connected, and all of Europe’s scientific advances and achievements were accomplished in order to discover the secrets of God — i.e. ‘The Plan.’ Therefore, the Eiffel Tower is connected to Stonehenge and the Pyramids are connected to Mozart’s Magic Flute (Mozart was a Mason). And everything is connected to everything else. It is only when ‘The Plan’ that they have invented begins to take on a life of its own, that things start to become dangerous.
FP simply overflows with information — the pages can’t contain it. It leaves your head spinning. And it leaves you thirsty.
The opening section is dense and, frankly, was a struggle to get through, but things settle down after the first twenty pages or so. Stick with it, and you’ll go places. And for the most part, FP is an intriguing read. However, I got so bogged down with the information – pages upon pages of facts and historical conjecture, and linking various elements together – that I felt like skipping chunks of the book. I enjoy reading history, and I enjoyed reading parts of the history in FP, but only up to a point. It’s like listening in on a group of scholars talking about subjects they’ve been studying their entire lives, and you’ve missed the beginning of the conversation.
But Eco fleshes his characters out so well, and gives them such vivid histories, that in the end, I found myself really caring about them. And this, more than his extensive research, is what sends FP into a stratosphere far above Da Vinci. Da Vinci’s characters are clichéd at best, and silly at their worst.
So while I thoroughly enjoyed parts of FP very much, I was very bored with others. Even though I disdained Da Vinci and its lacklustre writing, perhaps I was expecting FP to be more like it; an intellectual Leonardo Code with more thrills and some action. And it is, to a point. Alas, this is perhaps my own failing, not Eco’s. He denies his reader’s the pleasures of a simple suspense story. He is more concerned with character and ideas, exactly what a serious novelist should be concerned with.
Novels like The Da Vinci Code have their place, like airport lounges, or subway cars; I just can’t believe how insanely popular it has become. Brown has managed to take a few controversial historical guesses, and turn them into an attractive and easily digestible package. Eco’s novel, meanwhile is much harder to swallow, but well worth the attempt. You’ll be glad that you did.