There are three points mentioned by many other reviewers on this site which I would also like to address:
1) The main character.
There can be no doubt about it, Simonini is just about as hateful, craven, and ignorant a monster as you will come across in literature. I sincerely hope that you will find it impossible to identify with him. So most of the joy you will get from this character is likely to stem from the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) giveaways through which Simonini betrays the profoundness of his stupidity, even of his madness.
2) The historical setting
Yes, this is set in the nineteenth century, largely in France and Italy, and an interest in what took place in that period culturally and politically is probably necessary to get into this novel. This is partly because the book suffers from a severe lack of plot and development - there is no mystery, nothing to be found out, no development of character. Simonini forges documents and is involved in other criminal activities, we know that from the start, and that is what he does right up until the end. The narrative ploy around the identity of Abbé Dalla Piccola is resolved in a way that is not exactly a let-down, but is also far from being a twist.
So what you are dealing with is in fact a series of episodes, loosely connected through the motif of conspiracy. I did not recognise many of the battles and political allusions, bar the Dreyfus affair, with which I am somewhat familiar. So for me, what I most connected to was how Eco weaves into his fiction allusions to the literary world, both that contemporary to his story and that not (thus for instance, the references to Léo Taxil contain anachronistic allusions to James Joyce).
Between them, these two aspects mean that this is a rather difficult book, centred not so much on plot and character than on an intriguing game around three levels of understanding which intersect and clash in various ways: how much Simonini knows, how much the narrator understands, and the knowledge that we, the 21st century readers, may have.
Which brings me directly to my last point.
3) Dan Brown
Comparisons of this book to the work of Dan Brown are in my opinion somewhat off the point. Brown writes thrillers, plot-boilers, which have historical fact and fiction crammed into them for entertainment. Apparently his work is badly researched, and in my own opinion, he relies on cheap effects where even the least bit of common sense shows you that he warps basic facts so they fit into his grid. For instance, he needs the Gnostic Gospels to be mysterious, secret, forbidden writings. They are not. Here's a Kindle edition:
Eco's approach to history is always twofold. As a storyteller, he gleefully indulges in anecdotes both obscure and canonical, and always it is understood that we are not meant to take everything as a faithful rendition of fact. At the same time, his is also the approach of the academic. Eco has a thorough understanding of many aspects of cultural history (he has written a number of good books on an impressive array of topics to do with history, philosophy, and art). This understanding informs his writing, and where he departs from fact, I would usually suspect he is conveying more than just plot.
Of the two authors, Eco is simply the more sceptical one, and his scepticism is reflected in his hesitation to present you with a simple solution. To him, there can never be a narrative master key, only the different reports of the different people who witnessed and now describe the same events. Of Dan Brown, Eco has said:
- "Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, `Foucault's Pendulum,' which is about people who start believing in occult stuff."
- Interviewer: "But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel."
- Eco: "No, in `Foucault's Pendulum' I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures."
(Amazon won't let me post the source's web-address, but you can find the interview through Google by searching for "ny times magazine questions for umberto eco")
there remains to explain why I give this novel only four stars. Well, for all its qualities, amongst which are a pleasingly nonchalant style of writing, a main character whom I loved to hate, an amusing web of literary references, and a number of appetising recipes, there are enough problems here to make this one of Eco's weaker books. The plot, as I said, is thin, and the sheer number of characters we are confronted with can sometimes be difficult to manage, especially since none but Simonini and the Abbe Dalla Piccola achieve any vividness. Overall, this work can perhaps be said to share some of the faults of "Foucault's Pendulum," (lengthiness, a certain occasional dryness), and some of the strong points of "The Island of the Day Before" (witty use of the historical setting, black humour).