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`PENDULUM' IS THE PITS: MIND-NUMBING JUNK FICTION

"Foucault's Pendulum," the obese new volume from Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver, is post-modernist conspiracy fiction. It also, unfortunately, is humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts. I hated it.

The plot of "Foucault's Pendulum" is surprisingly uncomplicated. Three weird publishers, Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, are employees of a two-faced publishing house, Garamond/Manutius, whose visible Garamond face is that of a straight, upmarket company, but whose true Manutius nature is that of vanity press for self-financing authors.Tired of the endless stream of twaddle, our three heroes decide to make up the ultimate conspiracy theory, their own private totalization of occult knowledge. Their inventions, the bad fiction within this fiction, are fed into a computer named Abulafia after a medieval Jewish cabalist. Then, in a ridiculously melodramatic finale involving the eponymous Pendulum and massed hordes of crazed mystics, the fictional plan starts to come true. Edgar Allan Poe is among the myriad references in this book, but it doesn't help. This "Pendulum" is the pits.

It's just possible that inside this whale there's an enjoyable smaller fish trying to get out. The unscrupulous world of the vanity press and the fleecing of its feeble authors is depicted with some verve, and there are moments when the ponderous narrative sparks into life. But the spark is instantly snuffed out, buried under page after page of garbage.

Eco, the consummate post-modernist, is perfectly aware of all possible criticisms of his text, and lets us know that he knows.

"We're talking in stereotypes here," one of the characters astutely observes. And "Maybe only cheap fiction gives us the measure of reality," Belbo muses. That's Eco hinting that he intends to play deliberately with the form of the penny dreadful. And, because he is enough of an intellectual to know that hokum is hokum, he has not written an "innocent" novel but a "knowing" fiction about the creation of a piece of junk fiction that then turns knowingly into that piece of junk fiction. "Foucault's Pendulum" is not a novel. It is a computer game.

One way of playing it is to spot the references. Apart from Poe, there are touches of "The Maltese Falcon," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Ghostbusters," "The Lord of the Rings" (Belbo/Bilbo), "Gone With the Wind" and 007.

There are also political references to the radical turmoil of Italy in the `70s, but Eco fails to make the connections work. And at the very end - in Casaubon's conclusion, "I have understood. And the certainty that there is nothing to understand should be my peace, my triumph" - there's more than a touch of the ancient Japanese poet Basho who traveled to the seat of wisdom, the Deep North, to learn that there was nothing to learn there.

Unfortunately, the journey to this truth is so turgid that it's impossible to care about reaching the goal. This is Spielbergery without action or bullwhips, and if, as Anthony Burgess threatens on the jacket, "this is the way the European novel is going," we should all catch a bus in the opposite direction as soon as possible.

-Salman Rushdie is the author of "The Satanic Verses."