Umberto Eco is a true Italian renaissance man, a semiotician, novelist, children’s author, critic, philosopher and author of non-fiction and essays. He also collects books and apparently has some 50,000 in his collection, including 1200 rare editions. Now that’s what I call a passionate bibliophile! The Name of Rose is definitely his most well known book, having sold some 26 million copies since its publication in 1980. Eco is an academic who has caught the imagination of the reading public the world over.
With The Name of the Rose Eco has created a highly credible medieval world in which fiction and fact are interwoven. This can be heavy going and there are on occasions long sections that deal with papal politics, heretical sects and monkish philosophy, all of which tests the reader’s resolve. Despite this the novel also has political and philosophical themes that have strong relevance today. You could even argue that the book has an uncanny prescient quality thirty-three years on, with its examination of the nature of truth, freedom, intolerance and the sometimes-uneasy relationship between church and state.
The central protagonists are William of Baskerville, a monk who values rationality rather than faith, and his novice assistant Adso of Melk, who also acts as the narrator. William and Adso appear to be playful allusions to Holmes and Watson, that other famous sleuthing pair. William and Adso are finely drawn protagonists who are both humane and complex. But as a murder mystery the book was unfortunately lost for me, due to viewing the movie version many years ago. This, at least, allowed me to enjoy how Eco manipulates the reader, spinning a web of diversions and blind alleys to obscure the truth, which is in any case very well hidden in more ways than one. As a murder mystery the novel is certainly compelling, however your average murder mystery fan will find it hard going.
The Name of the Rose is five hundred pages of dense narrative that will challenge even the most determined fan of literature. I did struggle despite having studied medieval history, but ultimately I enjoyed the novel. Eco is certainly a fine writer. The complex plot and the characterizations are his great strengths, although the pacing is sluggish on occasions, suffering from the burden of medieval detail. The descriptions of the monastery and the labyrinthine library are detailed and genuinely atmospheric. One of the best passages involves Adso becoming lost in reverie as he describes the carvings on the doors of the church, leading me to the conclusion that medieval art attempted to do what cinema does so readily in the modern age – to take people elsewhere and nourish the imagination.
Ostensibly a medieval murder mystery, the novel also examines the meta relationship between narratives, how they feed into each other and also how they blend with the ‘real life’ narratives of the humans who read them, in this case scared apocalyptic fourteenth century monks. About half way through the novel, after William and Adso have already ventured through the library labyrinth (a highlight of the novel), they ruminate on the nature of books, how “Often books speak of other books.” In The Name of the Rose Eco does indeed speak of other books, with many references to ancient books, real, lost and perhaps even fabricated by Eco himself. Books and the stories they tell are the key to understanding this complex murder mystery. Keep that in mind when reading and you’ll have a chance of solving the mystery yourself.
Blending medieval history with a murder mystery has certainly worked for Eco in terms of capturing readers’ imaginations, but I wonder just how many people have actually finished the book? I know of at least two people who have had up to four attempts at completing it. If you are interested, but can’t face up to the long medieval interludes, perhaps try the movie, or even the board game. But that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?