Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Murder mystery with Church history
The Name of the Rose, first published in 1980, is the highly acclaimed first novel by Italian author and professor of philosophy Umberto Eco. The book is a mystery novel set in a 14th century Benedictine monastery in Italy. The “detective” in this mystery is William of Baskerville, an English Franciscan friar, who has come to the monastery to participate in a diplomatic summit between representatives of Pope John XXII and a group of monks accused of heresy. William is accompanied by a young Austrian monk, Adso of Melk, who, like a good Doctor Watson surrogate, serves as narrator. Upon arrival, the two discover that a monk has recently been found murdered, and the abbot asks William, renowned for his reasoning powers, to look into the matter.

In his initial descriptions of William’s physical appearance, personality, and deductive techniques, it seems as if Eco has intentionally patterned his detective after Sherlock Holmes. Early on, Eco also riffs on a scene from Voltaire’s Zadig (regarded by some to be the first piece of modern detective fiction) when William provides a detailed description of a horse that he has never seen, simply by exercising his prodigious faculty of reason. Like any good classic mystery thriller, The Name of the Rose includes a few great scenes of intense suspense, including late-night forays into a spooky labyrinthine library that any lover of old books would be happy to get lost in.

Make no mistake about it, The Name of the Rose is a brilliant mystery, even for those who don’t habitually read mystery novels. There is no getting around the fact, however, that in order to enjoy this mystery you are going to have to spend hours reading about the history of the Catholic Church. The depiction of life inside a medieval monastery is really quite fascinating, but the historical context gets quite tedious. It often seems as if Eco is just using the mystery story to showcase his erudition. Thankfully, he is not pushing any religious agenda; he just comes across as a guy who is obsessed with the minutiae of European history. He loves to go off on any digression, flashback, or dream sequence that will allow him to inject as much arcane knowledge into the proceedings as possible, necessary or not. His prose (at least the English translations I’ve read) is usually a pleasure to read, but often in mid-narrative he will break off into a list that goes on for pages—of decorations in a chapel, for example, or books on a shelf—just to indulge in obscure vocabulary. It is difficult to keep track of all the monks in the supporting cast and the distinguishing differences in their theological views.

The Name of the Rose inspires mixed emotions. On the one hand, one wishes all historical novels could be written this intelligently (as opposed to, for example, the works of Dan Brown, who writes Eco-esque books that seem aimed at a junior high audience). On the other hand, if you’re not avidly interested in the history of the Papacy, the Franciscan and Benedictine orders, or debates on the poverty of Christ, at times this book can be a total bore. Though The Name of the Rose is plotted better than Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, I prefer the latter simply because the historical content is less narrowly focused and more interesting to me personally. The Name of the Rose is certainly a work of great literary merit, but many readers, even fans of mysteries or historical novels, will likely find it tiresome.
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