Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a review


Warning: Spoilers ahead; I’m attempting to keep them minor

The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb. This library was perhaps born to save the books it houses, but now it lives to bury them.

--Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

There are days when I feel rather ambivalent about the internet. When I was growing up back in the early-mid 80s the concept of lore still existed. No one I knew could tell you what the symbols on Led Zeppelin 4 really meant; it was all speculation. If you wanted to find out you had to ask a guardian at the gates, perhaps a burnout with a subscription to Rolling Stone or Kerrang who could (sort of) give you the straight dope. Knowledge was concentrated among the few and you had to work hard to earn it.

Of course even back then you had public education and public libraries; the information was still there, just slightly less accessible than today. Now all you have to do is punch everything into Google (buyer beware about the quality of information returned, but you’ll find something). And though much is gained in this process, something is lost.

But most of the time I’m glad I live in the information age. It’s hard to imagine a time in which books were incalculably precious items, patiently copied and illustrated by monks in a painstaking manual process. This is the setting of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), which takes place in a 14th century Medieval monastery, home to a group of monks and a library of old tomes and scrolls. When a monk dies under mysterious circumstances new visitor William of Baskerville is tasked by the abbot to investigate. Over the next seven days a different monk is murdered according to precepts laid out in Revelations, heightening the mystery and the urgency.


So The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery, but that’s like saying Watership Down is about a bunch of rabbits looking for a new warren. The novel’s wonder and originality is in its digressions and commentary on religious and political issues of the Medieval Age, many of which are still in debate today. Eco takes us into philosophical questions like the nature of God, authority and the proper way by which mankind should rule itself, the nature of inquisitions and heresies, the acquisition of wealth vs. adherence to poverty and simplicity, and much more. It’s a book full of huge asides, but most of them are fascinating. For example, of the matter of church and state:

William said that his deductions seemed to him supported by the very example of Christ, who did not come into this world to command, but to be subject to the conditions he found in the world, at least as far as the laws of Caesar were concerned. He did not want the apostles to have command and dominion, and therefore it seemed a wise thing that the successors of the apostles should be relieved of any worldly or coercive power. If the pope, the bishops, and the priests were not subject to the worldly and coercive power of the prince, the authority of the prince would be challenged, and thus, with it, an order would be challenged that, as had been demonstrated previously, had been decreed by God… All this, William added with a cheerful expression, is no limitation of the powers of the supreme Pontiff, but, rather, an exaltation of his mission: because the servant of the servants of God is on this earth to serve and not to be served.

In other words, if you’re an impatient reader or expecting an action-packed “whodunit” you won’t like The Name of the Rose.

At the heart of The Name of The Rose is an examination of knowledge, and the means by which we acquire it and distribute it. The chief perpetrator of the murders believes that the only true knowledge is the knowledge of God, and anything that threatens that order should be locked away or destroyed. William is a religious man but also a skeptic and believes in free inquiry, regardless of where rationality may lead. It makes for a fascinating debate. Eco is skeptical about the veracity of ever discovering the “truth”. All we can do is make our best decisions based on the knowledge at hand, which is why it’s so critical to have all the evidence in the form of books and recorded testimony.

A few other things about the book are worth mentioning. The Name of the Rose isn’t the easiest book to read and I think it will take an average reader more than a single read to take it all in (I certainly didn’t grok everything during my once-through). It contains untranslated Latin passages, which are a bit of an annoyance, but you don’t need to understand Latin in order to read it. I can’t read Latin but they didn’t hinder my absorption of the book, though I imagine they would have enriched it.

A final aside: While reading my personal copy during our vacation I accidentally left it on the beach overnight, and a driving rainstorm passed through. As I finished it I was carefully leafing through its sopping pages. Though intact, my copy is essentially ruined. Since The Name of the Rose also discusses the fragility of learning and the tragedy of lost knowledge it proved to be a rather striking coincidence.

6 comments:

Fred said...

Brian,

Good review. Marvelous tale. I've read it twice, at least, and still think that there's more in there for me.

I was raised Catholic so the religious issues make sense to me--many are still being debated today. I wonder how those who aren't Catholic perceive the issues.

Being a Sherlock Holmes fan provides another layer of enjoyment also.

Pericles said...

My main compliant with historical novels is that they seem to have been written by people who can't truly imagine that the past is indeed a different country, and that those who lived in a previous age could think and act in ways that seem odd and incomprehensible to us. The writer filters way too much through his or her modern sensibilities, and this usually results in a story that's politically correct or mostly historical nonsense. Either way, these books comes across as silly and unbelievable.

Which is why I enjoyed THE NAME OF THE ROSE so much. Obviously I'm not from the Middle Ages, so I can't tell how realistic the book is, but the sometimes difficult writing, the alien and thorny ways of thought, and the sheer strangeness of it all just seem to ring true. One can easily believe that the 14th century was just like this. Eco doesn't pander much to his audience, and I like the way he creates a world that the reader has to adapt to.

A fine choice, Brian.

Pericles said...

Of course, THE NAME OF THE ROSE could have been made better if Eco had inserted some owl-riding scenes.
Still...

marycatelli said...

I recommend to aspiring writers to read gobs and gobs of primary source to knock their blocks off, so they do get that the past is a different country.

The downside of that is that your reading habits are affected: you start to see the silly ahistorical backgrounds.

marycatelli said...

I recommend to aspiring writers to read gobs and gobs of primary source to knock their blocks off, so they do get that the past is a different country.

The downside of that is that your reading habits are affected: you start to see the silly ahistorical backgrounds.

Brian Murphy said...

Being a Sherlock Holmes fan provides another layer of enjoyment also.

Good point Fred, I didn't mention that it's also an homage to these stories (William of Baskerville an obvious allusion).

One can easily believe that the 14th century was just like this. Eco doesn't pander much to his audience, and I like the way he creates a world that the reader has to adapt to.

Great comment Pericles (ditto Mary). The past is indeed a different country, and one feels like a stranger in a strange land in The Name of the Rose. But there is also a feeling of familiarity with the characters and most have at some level a humanity with which we can identify.

Of course, THE NAME OF THE ROSE could have been made better if Eco had inserted some owl-riding scenes.
Still...


If a giant owl came swooping in halfway through and committed one of the murders, the story would have been better x10, no doubt. Perhaps Eco would consider a sequel...