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!

Essay 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 Love Songs: The Hidden
History.
The Name of the Rose
by Umberto Eco
Click on image to purchase
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

The Board Game
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
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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