Reviewed by Ted Gioia

On any list of unlikely bestsellers from the last century,
The Name of the Rose must hold a special place of
distinction.  Nothing is rarer than for a novel translated
from Italian to reach the top of the
New York Times
bestseller list—unless it is, of course, a megahit book
written by an academic whose best
known previous work was
A Theory
of Semiotics
.  And did I mention that
the plot revolves around medieval
theology?

Even after it was translated into
English (and numerous other
languages),
The Name of the Rose still
had intimidating chunks of Latin on
almost every page, and a smattering
of other defunct languages scattered
hither and thither.  I took four years
of high school Latin, yet I still would
have been lost while reading this book if I hadn't had a copy
of
The Key to ‘The Name of the Rose’  (by Haft, White & White)
by my side.   Yet despite these obstacles, small and large,
this arcane novel sold a reported fifty million copies, which
puts it in the league of Harry Potter, and ahead of
Gone With
the Wind
, Roget’s Thesaurus and To Kill a Mockingbird.

But not all is foreboding and recondite in
The Name of the
Rose
.  The book also follows the familiar genre patterns of
the mystery—think of it as a cross between Agatha Christie's
And Then There Were None and Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  
Monks are dying under curious circumstances, and the
detective (okay, he’s just a monk too, but a very smart one)
William of Baskerville is asked by the abbot to get to get to
the bottom of it.  Baskerville is assisted by Adso of Melk,
who is sort of a tonsured Dr. Watson. In fact, I kept waiting
for William to interject: "Eleemosynary, my dear novice
Adso."

In the background, Eco constructs a labyrinth of supporting
plots (including one involving a labyrinth).  William has
arrived at the Abbey as a representative of Emperor Louis IV
in order to participate in negotiations also involving
emissaries from the Pope, who is in heated conflict with the
Emperor, and the Franciscan order, then caught in the
crossfire between secular and ecclesiastical agendas.  This
part of the story draws the reader into further subplots
involving heretical and rebellious church movements, and
the various inquisitions and repressive actions employed in
combating them.  And all these elements draw in aspects of
theology, philosophy and history, that constantly linger in the
background of
The Name of the Rose, and sometimes dominate
the foreground as well.

This may sound dry and academic, but Eco builds his
polemics around forceful personalities.  Like any good
mystery writer, he knows that it is essential to populate his
story with many likely suspects, a plethora of possible
murderers.  Here we encounter Salvatore, the secretive and
gluttonous monk who speaks in a strange composite jargon—
made up of bits and pieces of contemporary and ancient
languages—and who is disturbingly vague when asked about
certain particulars in his past.   Malachi, the librarian, also
arouses our suspicions:  he never allows anyone into the
third floor of the Aedificum, the fortress where the abbey’s
rare collection of manuscripts and books are held, yet
mysterious lights can be seen through the windows at night.  
Severinus the doctor and herbalist might also be a
murderer—he knows an uncanny amount about rare
poisons.   Jorge of Brugos, the blind man, seems to know
even darker secrets and shows up quietly and stealthily at the
least expected moments.  Even Abo the Abbot is not above
reproach, and comes across as far more concerned with
worldly riches and power than is befitting for a Benedictine
monk.  

But the most compelling character is our detective William
of Baskerville.  Have you encountered mysteries where the
private investigator was once a policeman, but left the force
after encountering too much corruption?  Well, the same is
true of William, except the organization he left behind wasn't
the L.A.P.D, but the Inquisition.  (Fill in your own wisecrack
here.)   He didn't like the
modus operandi, and now operates as
a free agent, but—unlike your typical private eye—he has
the benefit of an Oxford education, and mentoring by Roger
Bacon and William of Ockham, whose approach to natural
philosophy proves to be a good medieval substitute for a
degree in criminology.  

Much has changed in the world since the late Middle Ages,
but there are some constants.  The seven deadly sins are still
around, and if you have any doubts over how deadly they
might be,
The Name of the Rose will settle the argument.  Eco
also adds a convincing love story, with just the right dose of
concupiscence for the modern reader—not easy for a story
set in a monastery, but our author is a master of plotting, so
such obstacles are deftly overcome.  All in all,
The Name of
the Rose
combines the best elements of a historical romance, a
thriller, and a novel of ideas.  

Yet our author would not be Umberto Eco, if the book
wasn't full of intertextual, intratextual, and countertextual
twists.   For Eco, another turn of the screw means another
book within a book, and Eco gives us several additional turns
here.  Not only does the story involve texts, as well as texts
that relate to other texts;  not only do manuscripts figure as
possible clues, motives and weapons in
The Name of the Rose;
but even the narrative itself is reportedly drawn from a book
the author found in 1968 that contained a 14th century text
from a Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk.   I can’t say much
more without giving away the plot, but I will tell you that,
after reading
The Name of the Rose, you won’t ever again look
at the library as just a clean, well-lighted place for books.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the
Cool.
The Name of the Rose
by Umberto Eco
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Umberto Eco’s life must be a kind of
symbol, similar to those he deconstructs in
his works on semiotics.  But a symbol of
what?  His transformation from medievalist
to bestselling writer could be a sign of the
zaniness of the
marketplace, or
the sophistication
of the reading
public, or perhaps
merely testimony
to the value of a
good publicist.  Or,
honestly, maybe it's
just a deserved re-
ward for writing so
well.  Then again,
Eco himself may be
a dangling signifier,
revealing little or nothing about his own
readers.  "I myself like easy books that put
me to sleep immediately,” he has
commented.  In other words, books unlike
those written by Umberto Eco.

Our author was born on January 5, 1932 in
Allesandria, a town south of Milan in the
Piedmont region of Italy.  He entered the
University of Turin with expectations of
becoming a lawyer, but instead ended up
focusing his studies on Thomas Aquinas and
medieval culture and thought.  Many more
career shifts would await in him future years,
which found him working in journalism for
Italy’s state-owned RAI television network,
writing literary criticism (including a study of
James Joyce’s
Finnegans Wake), and serving as
the first professor of semiotics at the
University of Bologna, the oldest university
in Europe.  Of course, this was all prelude to
his transformation into a novelist, which in
typical Eco fashion, he did with grand
success. His 1980 novel
The Name of the Rose
would become one of the biggest selling
novels of the century, and later morph into a
popular film.   When he is not conquering
new fields, Eco plays the recorder, smokes
several packs of cigarettes per day, and
enjoys his personal library—ominously
similar to the deadly one portrayed in
The
Name of the Rose
—with its 30,000 volumes.  
Let the borrower beware!
ROGUES GALLERY:
UMBERTO ECO
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Further Clues:

Umberto Eco's Home Page

Interview with Umberto Eco by Lila Azam Zanganeh
from The Paris Review

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The Reading List
(with links to essays)

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Ilustrado


Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  


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