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January 28, 2013

"The Name of the Rose" (1980) by Umberto Eco (Book Review)

The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa, 1980; English translation by William Weaver 1983) by Umberto Eco is a typical postmodern novel: a pastiche of a detective novel and a mixture of high and low culture, it is also a historical novel written from a great familiarity with the Middle Ages, and a philosophical novel in which the plot mirrors the theological discussions of the age, such as the millenarian heresies (the interest in sects is characteristic of Eco, fully developed in his second novel Foucault's Pendulum). Numerous philosophers are referenced throughout the novel, some even anachronistically!

What is amazing about this novel is its immense popularity – despite the many Latin citations (usually left untranslated) and the arcane discussions and long descriptions, this book sold 50 million copies worldwide – a true sign of the mastery with which Umberto Eco wrote his first novel.

[Umberto Eco - Photo from Wikipedia]

Eco provides more than only an imitation of the detective novel style: we also have a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes in the “hero,” William of Baskerville. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his Benedictine novice and scribe Adso of Melk (his young Watson, so to speak – likewise, Adso serves as the narrator) travel to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological dispute. As they arrive, the monastery is disturbed by a suicide (or murder?) and in the next days, more monks mysteriously die. William is asked by the abbot of the monastery to investigate the deaths. His exploration leads him to the labyrinthine library of the monastery where the clue to the mystery seems to be hidden.

There are various subplots, for example about heretical and rebellious religious movements and the Inquisition. Eco often translates these medieval religious controversies into modern terms. As a true postmodernist, Eco enjoys every opportunity for lengthy digressions and stories in stories. He also enjoys making lists of things, something in common between Medieval authors and postmodernists. Another strong characteristic of the novel is its intertextuality. As Eco says: "Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told." It is the postmodern ideal that texts refer to other texts, rather than external reality. The Name of the Rose contains references to several stories by Borges (such as “The Library of Babel,” “The Secret Miracle,” “Death and the Compass”), to Conan Doyle, to Aristotle (an intertextual reference to a lost text by this great philosopher!), and to countless medieval texts – the Inquisition trial in the novel, for example, paraphrases an Inquisition record. The “poisoned page” method used by the murderer, finally, appears in an apocryphal anecdote about the purported author of the Chinese novel Jinpingmei, Wang Shichen, but I am not sure Eco was aware of that (popular but unverifiable tradition attributes the Jinpingmei to the Confucian scholar Wang Shicheng, who is said to have dashed off the huge novel in just six weeks to get revenge on the decadent Yen Shifan, the son of the man he blamed for his father's death; Wang sent Yen the manuscript as a gift after rubbing grains of poison into the corner of each page so that Yen would ingest them when he wet his finger in his mouth to turn the pages).

[The monastery of San Michele formed the inspiration for Eco's fictional abbey]

These are the Middle Ages, but true to the scholastic method, William demonstrates the power of deductive reasoning, and does not believe in demons or the supernatural. He keeps an open mind and following his intuition, collects the necessary facts. By the way, the name “William” points to William of Ockham, who around the years in which the novel is set, put forward the principle known as "Ockham's Razor," that one should always accept as most-likely the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts.

True to the postmodern sensibility, the solving of the murder mystery is also a metaphor for the reader's interpretation of the text. That solution interestingly hinges on the contents of Aristotle's Book on Comedy, of which no copy survives. Eco however plausibly describes it and skilfully mixes fact and scholarly conjecture. It is highly interesting that the murderer, a monk, had as motive that he wanted to keep this book and the subversive power of laughter out of the hands of others – the Church has never been fun-loving. By the way, despite his intricate reasoning, William discovers the murderer by accident – he was in fact misled by his theory that the murders are based on the Revelation of John, just as the detective in Borges' “Death and the Compass” was misled by his intellectual reasoning.

It is wonderful how everything in The Name of the Rose comes together in the form of texts and books: we have a postmodern novel with heaps of intertextuality, the largest library in the medieval world (a secret place, fitted out with mirrors and built of seemingly endless galleries), a book that is used as a tool for murder, and the same book that is also the cause of the crime (The Book on Comedy which had to be kept from the world). The detective, William of Baskerville, has read so many books that he needs glasses – here presented as a new-fangled invention – and the murderer, of course, is a blind librarian. To make the circle round, this librarian was based on Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories as mentioned above formed a major influence on Eco - Borges was blind during his later years and was also director of Argentina's national library.

Finally, Eco is also a semiotician, and that is how the title comes into focus. What does the name “rose” point at – how are name and reality linked? Eco gives an ambiguous Latin citation here, but could it not be from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” - in other words, even when you change the name, the thing remains the same? This would then mean that any title for the novel will do, for ultimately the book itself remains the same. Or, as Eco writes in his Postscript, “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.”

This post incorporates suggestions and references from the English Wikipedia article on the novel.

The Name of the Rose was made into a film in 1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville and Christian Slater as Adso. Film and novel are different media, but I was pleasantly surprised at the faithfulness with which the novel was translated in filmic terms. There are some changes to the plot, but the basic set-up remains intact and the atmosphere of the monastery on the lonely mountain peak is skilfully realized. The only serious blot on the film is the miscasting of Sean Connery in the main role.