The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980, tr. 1983)
This past February, one of the most brilliant contemporaries in the literary world passed away. His name was Umberto Eco, who was an Italian professor in semiotics. In 1980, he won surprising acclaim in the Italian publishing world for The Name of the Rose, and later, in 1983, he had similar international success with the English translation. According to the novel’s publisher, it has sold over thirty million copies. What’s amazing is not the numbers as there have been higher numbers for other works, but the fact that people for over three decades have put effort into in reading such a difficult work. In the first few pages, one can tell that Eco was an erudite man, and that he wants you to work as hard from reading the novel as he worked in composing this page turner, which is over five hundred pages.
The plot of the novel begins simply. The protagonists, William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar, and Adso of Melk, his Benedictine novice, are invited to a Northern Italian monastery to attend a debate concerning matters of the Catholic Church. However, upon arrival, there is a death of a monk, and it is a suspected suicide. However, as William, a perceptive investigator and a former inquisitor, tries to find out why, another monk is found dead, and then another, and so on. Thus, he, with the help of young Adso, must find out who is killing the monastery’s inhabitants and why. Will he find out the mystery before a greater stench is raised about the monastery? A delegation from the pope is on the way, and they aren’t entirely pleased with some of the ideas espoused by the Benedictine monastery, which is the reason for the converging of the debate. These foul murders no doubt will lead to further pressure on the monkish community.
The Name of the Rose is a mystery, and noticing the name “William of Baskerville” and reading his character traits throughout the story, it’s obvious that Eco looked to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes as an influence. However, the novel is deeper than a simple whodunit. As an historical novel, it centers around various debates that occurred in early 14th century Europe concerning the authority of the pope and his relation to secular governments, particularly the Holy Roman Emperor, who was rival enough to create his own pope. Furthermore, not even the Church is united, as the different orders of monks are opposed to one another over the notion of monkish poverty and property ownership, and some monks seek the favor of the pope, while others press for the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor. Many also believe that the strife is one of the signs that the Apocalypse is at hand, and thus there is panic throughout Christendom.
It was mentioned that this is a page turner, but this should be somewhat qualified. Eco was a lover of language; he spoke five modern European languages, and he was well-familiar with the classics. Thus, the novel is heavily sprinkled with words, phrases, quotations, and sentences from other languages. Latin is especially prominent, which makes sense as that was the language of the Church and the educated in the medieval period. I took four semesters of Latin in college and I have access to the internet, so discovering what something meant, and then continuing on in the novel was not too burdensome. I thus praise those earlier readers who didn’t have such advantages, and nonetheless, persevered on despite the labyrinth of language. As they reached the end, they must’ve patted themselves on the back. I will say that Eco’s linguistic gymnastics is not done just to show off for it has symbolic meaning. Eco believed in intertextuality: that works of literature are shaped by books, contemporary and past. Thus, the Latin he uses and quotes has meaning for the monks of the novel as well as for us as modern interpreters of the mystery we see unfolding as we read.
One may get the impression that The Name of the Rose is a dry tale of literary symbolism and theological and philosophical intrigue. The novel, however, has heart; you just have to search for it, and realize it when you’ve found it.