Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil.

The Name of the Rose
is an intimidating book to review. Not merely because of its erudition, which is considerable, but because of its theme: the value of the written word and its ability to translate knowledge and wisdom. It poses tough questions about what we seek in books and what they offer to us, and in that sense becomes about itself, making any review by necessity incomplete and simple in comparison.

Wait, you say, might it not be said (by Umberto Eco, even) that all books are essentially about themselves? And thus we return, like the labyrinth that lies at the heart of In the Name of the Rose, to where we began. No excuses, then.

The year is 1327 and the Catholic church is on the precipice of the crisis known as the Great Schism. The Pope has moved to Avignon, and faces the enmity of the Holy Roman Emperor, the only peer he has in Europe. The church is--much in defiance of popular notions of Medieval history--deeply fragmented, into monastic orders and heretical sects, and the line between is not so clear. It is in this climate that an English monk named William of Baskerville comes to an unnamed abbey in northern Italy to facilitate a meeting between the Pope's representatives and a group of Franciscans supported by the Emperor. But as soon as William arrives he is set to another task--investigating the death of a young monk who may have been thrown from the high walls of the abbey.

Deaths multiply: Another brother is found beaten to death and dumped in a vat of pig's blood. A third is poisoned, and still another has his head bashed in. The murders seem to have something to do with the abbey's clandestine library, a massive labyrinth closed to all but the librarian and his assistant. William and his assistant, Adso of Melk--the book's interpreter--determine through keen investigating and deductive reasoning that the conflict in the abbey revolves around a strange book, but what it is, and who wants it, and who wants it to remain concealed, is the mystery.

The Name of the Rose has the swiftness and intensity of a good pulp detective story, but it is also a book deeply concerned with weightier matters. Eco fills much of the book with lengthy debates on heresy and proper theology that dominated the religious and political landscape of the day. Amazingly, these sections are almost as gripping and fascinating as the underlying mystery. Yet, the book remains playful--after all, William of Baskerville's name is undoubtedly a not-so-sly allusion to Sherlock Holmes.

Eco is a semiotician by profession; he writes about signs and symbols and the process of their interpretation. The Name of the Rose, then, is a meditation on how we interpret--how we interpret a text, as William does when he breaks a secret code based on the symbols of the zodiac, and as the reader does in reading the book itself; how we interpret the symbols of the world around us, as William and Adso do in unraveling the mystery; not least how we interpret the will of God. I would not like to spoil the events of the novel, but I will say that William's process--unlike the archetypal Holmesian detective--is not flawless, but flawed and messy. So it is with us, who see through a mirror, darkly.

I can't recommend this book enough. Eco coined the term opera aperta, the "open work" that is the most rewarding because it offers the most possible interpretations and meanings. Perhaps because of this, The Name of the Rose seems to appeal to all sorts of readers, from lovers of thrillers to medievalists and in between.

6 comments:

Amanda said...

One person I know has recommended this to me over and over, and I just can't get up the motivation to want to read it. It sounds like the antithesis of what I look for in books and what I prefer to read. I'm not even sure why he keeps recommending it for me specifically.

Nihil Novum said...

You read this really fast.

Josh said...

I've always hated that question "what book(s) you would take if stranded on an island?" but if forced to answer The Name of the Rose would have to be on of them . . . one of the best books I've ever read.

Jim said...

Ooooooh man did I hate this book. Hated it so hard.

That said the film adaptation has like the hottest sex scene ever between a 15 year old Christian Slater and this super-bangin' actress.

Christopher said...

Jim, that surprises me. How could you hate it?

ashmitasaha said...

i agree the book is a superb read...however i thought that the debates were too topical. Also the descriptions, political and otherwise belonged to a time i could not relate much to...i thought they lead you away from the plot. i attempted a review of the book myself here: www.book-review-circle.com/The-Name-Of-The-Rose-Umberto-Eco.html