Just as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) anticipated Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller The Da Vinci Code, so did Eco’s follow-up book Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) point the way to Brown’s The Lost Symbol (2009). I am tempted to construct a conspiracy theory to explain the convergence in the efforts of these two authors, who are themselves so obsessed with conspiracy theories. For a start, I suspect the Masons are involved here—along with the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Knights Templar, and maybe the Trilateral Commission too.
Eco was unable to match the commercial success of his debut novel with Foucault’s Pendulum. But who could blame him? The Name of the Rose sold a reported fifty million copies worldwide, and served as the basis for a movie, a video game, and at least three different board games. For all I know, Eco has also made money from baseball caps and coffee cup licensing, and may be negotiating a theme park ride at Euro Disney. Foucault’s Pendulum got none of that, not even a lousy T-shirt.
But make no mistake, Umberto Eco’s second novel is just as brilliantly conceived and intricately plotted as its predecessor, and comes equipped with even more historical pageantry and philosophical speculations. As with The Name of the Rose, this book is ostensibly about books, and the troubles they can cause. I know, it hardly seems like a promising start for an adventure story, but don’t underestimate Doctor Eco, who previously showed that even medieval eschatology could inspire as much action and intrigue as a Lost Ark or missing horcrux.
Eco’s three protagonists work in the publishing industry, where their efforts increasingly focus on trashy books filled with mad occult speculations and conspiracy theories. They have nothing but contempt for the authors of these works, but out of sheer boredom, they begin constructing their own half-baked conspiracy theory—which they refer to as the Plan with a capital P. At first, the Plan is merely a private joke and idle entertainment, but increasingly they work at it in earnest.
Our narrator, Dr. Causabon, is the driving force of the cohort, and a specialist in the Knights Templar, that Christian military order that flourished during the Crusades but was brutally repressed at the start of the fourteenth century. Most historical accounts assume that the Templars ceased to exist after the execution of the order’s Grand Master Jacques de Molay, who was burnt at the stake on March 18, 1314. But alternative theories hint at the survival of the Templars, even until modern times, perhaps under the guise of freemasonry or some other ‘cover’ organization.