Author: Umberto Eco
Translator: William Weaver
Publishing Date: 1984
Number of Pages: 502
Genre: Historical, Mystery
“Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice travelling under his protection, arrive at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological disputation. Upon their coming, the monastery is disturbed by a suicide. As the story unfolds, several other monks die under mysterious circumstances. William is tasked by the monastery’s abbot to investigate the deaths, and fresh clues with each murder victim lead William to dead ends and new clues. The protagonists explore a labyrinthine medieval library, discuss the subversive power of laughter, and come face to face with the Inquisition, a reaction to the Waldensians, a heresy which started in the 12th century and claimed to advocate an adherence to the Gospel as taught by Jesus and his disciples. William’s innate curiosity and highly developed powers of logic and deduction provide the keys to unraveling the abbey’s mysteries.” (Source: Wikipedia)
The Name of the Rose is a book I keep on encountering on list challenges. Although I was curious about the title, I barely had any iota on what the book is about. I wasn’t familiar with the author, Umberto Eco, as well. Apparently he is a well-established and world renowned author. The book’s inclusion in the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die further piqued my curiosity. As a result, I made a resolution to avail a copy of the book.
Numerous tries of scavenging on different bookstores ended up in futility. But just when I was about to give up on my search for Eco’s elusive book, I finally saw a copy on an online seller. Not one for taking further chances, I immediately purchased the book. Because I couldn’t keep the suspense any longer, I included The Name of the Rose in my 2017 Top 20 Books To Read.
“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.” ~ Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
For the nth time this year, I find myself devouring yet another historical novel. Not that I have any qualms about it considering how highly praised Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is. I’ve already had taste of Eco with his pseudo-historical and picaresque work, Baudolino, which really confounded me and left me dumbfounded because of its eccentricity. Due to this eccentricity, I approached The Name of the Rose with a bit of skepticism and caution.
The book opened with a third person, probably the author himself, discovering a manuscript relating the events that unfolded in a Benedictine abbey located in northern Italy. This manuscript was written and narrated by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice monk who assisted Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar. Set in 1327, Adso and William were to attend a theological disputation in the said Benedictine monastery. However, upon their arrival, they were greeted by the news of a monk’s death.
William, a former inquisitor, ended up being tasked by Abo, the abbot of the abbey, to investigate this death. However, more deaths ensued. William and Adso diligently tried to gather clues surrounding these deaths but with every clue that they uncover, they hit a dead end. It wasn’t all a dead end, however, as these clues led them to the labyrinth under the aedificium, the building containing the abbey’s library. But even before the deaths were solved, Bernard Gui, a feared inquisitor, arrived at the abbey, stirring troubles further.
“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” ~ Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
I am most impressed with the way Eco expertly and extensively depicted medieval monastic life. I am also astonished with how he dealt with numerous theological arguments that involved the Abbey’s monks. Lengthily and often with zest, the occupants argued on a plethora of religious and theological subjects such as heresy and gospel interpretations. But the most fiery argument was the argument on whether Jesus lived in poverty or in opulence.
The story contained numerous allusions to a plethora of religious dogmas and subjects. This was balanced by the mystery part of the book, which had a Sherlock Holmes feel to it. Eco was successful in keeping the reader in tenterhook all throughout the story. The mystery is muddled until the very end of the story. Just like any successful mystery piece, unmasking the murderer was a great challenge.
Umberto Eco, a renowned semiotic, also bequeathed his encyclopedic knowledge to Brother William. Brother William solved most mysteries, even the most mundane ones, using signs and symbolism that his keen perception has observed. As a result of this allusion to signs and symbolism, the book often drew comparison to Dan Brown books. Personally, I felt that Brown employed more symbolism and less literature while Eco employed literature more into his work than he did with the symbolism.
Another facet that I liked about The Name of the Rose is that it is a book about books. Aside from the abbey’s library and the library’s staff playing a key role in the mystery, there were also numerous references to different texts such as Aristotle, Revelation and to one of Eco’s personal favorite authors: Jorge Luis Borges. Aside from the textual references, the book is laced with numerous apocryphal and authentic Latin quotes.
“Monsters exist because they are part of the divine plan, and in the horrible features of those same monsters the power of the creator is revealed.” ~ Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
The ending of the book was a bit anticlimactic though. The text was weaved in a manner that makes the reader believe that there is a established pattern to the murders. The book’s ending was ironic. Although the perpetrator was apprehended, the mystery was solved merely through chances and not through the sleuthing skills of William and Adso. As Eco explained it himself, “very little is discovered and the detective is defeated.”
However, in spite of the unexpected ending, the book itself was a marvel. The themes it covered, from medieval studies to biblical analysis to literary theory, is extensive. It was a perfect mix of mystery and literary. I have read a lot of mystery novels and I easily got bored reading them because they seem to follow one pattern. Books like The Name of the Rose, with their apparent lack of patterns, challenge the inner reader in me.
Overall, The Name of the Rose is one of the best reads I’ve had in recent memory. The writing style and the story was great. It is a heavy read but it was not as challenging as I initially thought it was. It was a pleasure reading the book because of its pace which is neither too fast nor too slow. The Name of the Rose is a unique and epic work and it is easy to understand why numerous readers around the world refer to it as a classic.
Recommended for history buffs, readers who like mystery of the Sherlock Holmes kind and readers who like to read about medieval and monastic life.
About the Reader
Umberto Eco was born on January 5, 1932 in the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont in northern Italy. His father urged him to become a lawyer but he ended up taking medieval philosophy and literature in the University of Turin. After earning his degree in 1954, he became a cultural editor for Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), a state-owned broadcasting station. He also lectured at the University of Turin from 1956 to 1964.
In 1962, he married Renate Ramage, a German art teacher, with whom he fathered a son and a daughter.
A voracious reader, he kept two large-volume libraries in his apartment in Milan and in his vacation house near Urbino. Although he has been an active writer post his collegiate year, it wasn’t until 1980 that he published his first novel, Il nome della rosa, which became an instant bestseller, especially with the publication of its English translation, The Name of the Rose in 1983. He followed up this instant classic with yet another classic, Il pendolo di Foucault. It was published in 1988 and translated in English in 1989 as Foucault’s pendulum. He would go on to publish five more novels, with Numero Zero, published in 2015, as his last.
Aside from being a novelist and a writer, he was also a visiting professor at Columbia University and the Norton professor at Harvard University. Because of his works, he received numerous honorary doctorates from various educational institutions like Indiana University Bloomington and University of Tartu.
Umberto Eco died on February 19, 2016 in his Milanese home after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.