Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Paperback: 536 pages
Publisher: Harvest Books; 1 Harvest Ed edition (September 28, 1994)

Language: English
ISBN-10: 0156001314
genre: historical murder mystery

”I was not surprised that the mystery of the crimes should involve the library. For these men devoted to writing, the library was at once the celestial Jerusalem and an underground world on the border between terra incognita and Hades.”

Synopsis

Elderly but still fit Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville (hmm…The Hound of the Baskervilles by A.C Doyle anyone?) and his secretary cum servant, a Benedictine teen novice Adso of Melk (WadsoN ?) travel to a venerable monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological dispute about the poverty of Christ. As they arrive they find out that the monastery has been disturbed by a mysterious death of a monk. William is known as an intelligent and acute Inquisitor so the abbot asks him to investigate discreetly the case. As the plot unfolds, innocent people are being burned as witches and heretics, several other monks are being murdered as well but for a different reason, following a rather sinister pattern. It is left to William’s enormous powers of logic and deduction to solve the mysteries of the abbey as no one seems to be inclined to help him.

On one level, the book is an exposition of the scholastic method which was very popular in the 14th century. William demonstrates the power of deductive reasoning (Sherlock Holmes would be proud), especially syllogisms. He refuses to accept the diagnosis of simple demonic possession despite demonology being the traditional monastic explanation. Because we are viewing events from Adso’s point of view (an elderly Adso to add, writing a kind of memories many years later) the young boy serves mostly to bounce questions off William so that the elderly wise brother can solve the various puzzles he faces. The solution is a bit different than William’s final theorems but he still manages to discover the horrible truth and the real murderer. At the end nobody gives a fig about his discovery, though – the whole monastery is destroyed in a really apocalyptic fire.

What I liked:

What fascination might the theological and political disputes of the 14th century hold for a contemporary reader – the long-forgotten rivalries between Pope and emperor, bishops and abbots, between reformist friars who preach poverty and wealthy clerics who support the church’s claims to mundane riches? A great fascination indeed. I believe every time I read this novel my IQ is raised instantly by a couple of points.

Too many authors, writing books set in medieval times, tend to ‘cheat’ their readers by either poorly researching the times in which they are writing, or glossing over places and events they know little about. Not Eco. Firstly and foremostly he has an intimate knowledge of the era and he is not afraid to share it with us. Whole chapters of this book are little more than history lessons, as we watch the Catholic churches in the final throes of its great power. In short this is a very good book to learn history from and compared to 99% of the materials published recently, this is still remarkably good stuff.

A suspenseful, riveting plot, strange murders, a long dated historical mystery (the existence/disappearance of the second book of Aristotle poetics, that dealt with comedy), the interesting medieval framework, powerful symbolism – truckloads of erudition. Apart from learning history I enjoyed trying to solve the mystery along with William and Adso. I was also happy to be able to practice my Latin – I usually could figure out the basic meanings and sometimes I even had a complete translation. Very fulfilling!

What I didn’t like:

Well I really liked most of it but I admit this book contained a lot of church history that at times might be hard to follow. I also strongly recommend finding a version with passages in Latin translated into English or your mother tongue (I’ve heard it is possible) unless you know a thing or two about Latin and you are prepared to read this book with a dictionary.

The final verdict:

My all-time favourite, a book I would recommend even to those who usually opt for recreational reading of romantic stuff.

A bonus

Have you wondered about the meaning of the title?

“Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”.
Literaly it can be translated as “The pure rose subsists thanks to its name, we have only bare names”. Now you know where Sheakespeare found one of his most famous quotes:

Juliet:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

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9 Responses to Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

  1. Melissa says:

    Church history is fascinating and incredibly complex – often leaving me really confused. This sounds like a really awesome book though, and I love that there are Latin passages! Great and thorough review 😀

  2. anachronist says:

    Thanks Melissa, if you are not afraid of a bit of history and Latin this book will charm you for sure!

  3. Blodeuedd says:

    Never read it, but I did try to watch the movie once. Can't remember if I saw the whole thing, I remember..that Slater had sex. Ok I must be weird

  4. Tracy says:

    I read this book after I'd watched the movie – they changed a few things in the movie (as always), but it did make the book easier to read – I enjoyed the book, but found some of the more obscure references hard to follow, and I doubt I'd have read the book back then (late eighties) if I hadn't seen the movie version first.

  5. anachronist says:

    I remember..that Slater had sex. Ok I must be weird Lol that's the influence of the cinema I suppose. If they adapt a novel for the screen they must dumb it down in the process, sometimes even painfully so. Yes, in the book there is also a short sex scene between young Adso and a nameless poor village girl who came to the monastery for scraps of meat but it is in no way the most important feature ( of course it must become the most important scene if you hire a young rising star for a movie – he must be in the limelight and sex sells well). I am not fond of the movie myself (I read the book first) but I am hardly ever so when it comes to adaptations…I must be weird too I suppose…

  6. I never read this book either. I did see the movie. One day I will get around to it. If there is some latin that you are stuck on, you can always ask me. I'll do my best. 🙂

  7. anachronist says:

    Thanks The Red Witch for your kind offer. I know you are pretty busy so I appreciate it even more.

  8. Not that busy. plus, I need the exercise. 🙂

  9. anachronist says:

    Next time I will ask you to help me for sure – thanks again!

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