The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Posted October 6, 2010on:
You know that list of books you want to read again the moment you finish them? Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose makes that list for me.
For an Eco, it’s surprisingly readable, and layered in such a way that readers of any interest level will get a lot out of it.
At its most basic level, this is a murder mystery. In Eco’s afterward, he mentions the concept of the novel was born when he played with the idea of poisoning a monk. He also mentions that he wrote the prose in a specifically open manner to encourage readers to form their own interpretation of events and conversations. Is that person being sarcastic? Is there some kind of secrecy going on? If you interpret it that way, then he is, and there is. Like so many things in life, it’s all about how you interpret it.
Brother William and novice Adso are traveling to a Benedictine Monastery in Italy, for the purpose of meeting up with other monks in the area. They are hoping to devise a plan of attack for an upcoming meeting between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, at which heresy will be the main topic. When William and Adso arrive, they are informed of the recent death of a young monk, and asked to investigate. To protect the reputation of his monastery, the Abbot wishes for William to find out what’s going on before the other Catholic representatives arrive.
And, as this is a murder mystery, the bodies start piling up. As a friend of Sir Francis Bacon and William of Occam, brother William goes about his investigation in a very scientific way. Ask questions, find out where people were at the times of death, look for people with fishy alibies, look for footprints in the snow by the bodies. Piece by piece, Williams puts together his hypotheses, with minimal help from the secretive monks. He even sneaks into their famous labyrinth library after the abbot forbids him from doing so. There is something in that library that people are dying for. Like myself, William is a lover of books and knowledge – no learning is heretical, it is all important. Libraries of that time were literally banks of information, scrolls and books that existed no where else in the world. The philosophical idea of a library that exists to keep knowledge away from people and keep secrets was beyond fascinating for me.
The days go by, there are more deaths, the other Catholic representatives arrive, along with the Inquisition. Eco says he put the Inquisition in the story because you can’t have a 14th century story take place in a monastery without them. And yes, that chapter made me queasy, had me biting my nails, and nearly gave me an anxiety attack.
I could easily go on and on about The Name of the Rose, so I’ll say just one more thing: read it. Make sure you get a copy with Eco’s afterword (because that’s the best part), and read it to. Eco hits everything just right: style of prose, action, descriptions, dialogue, everything. Because this is Eco we’re talking about, of course the novel has a handful of untranslated German, Latin, and Spanish. So of course I’m loving my Spanish-English dictionary (which I think is really my sisters?), am pulling my Latin books down from the shelf (Mom, if you’re looking for your Latin books, I’m holding them hostage), and contemplating getting a German English dictionary. The beauty of transliterations, and mistransliterations is that two people will often come up with three differnt ways to translate something. There’s another level for you.
It’s books like this that make those mediocre novels so hard to enjoy.
I should also let it be known this is the only Eco novel I’ve actually finished. I didn’t get very far into Foucault’s Pendulum, and got about halfway through The Island of the Day Before.