Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting from this book. Whatever it was, I didn't get it--but I did get something wonderful. According to the introduction, it is a reconstruction (from notes) of a forged translation of a 14th-century manuscript by a Benedictine monk. Of course, it is actually a novel written by the talented Umberto Eco, and a mystery along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe--that is to say, the detective is a logician along the lines of Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin. It is narrated by the supposed author of the manuscript, Adso of Melk, a German novice who is traveling with the detective, William of Baskerville, to learn from and assist him. It took me until about halfway through the book to accept that the novel was probably not fantasy--fantastical elements were certainly hinted at, but the style of such a logician does not lend itself to that genre!

William has been asked to an Italian abbey to help mediate a discussion between two opposing Catholic sects, but when he arrives, he has another task: solve a series of unlikely and possibly mystical murders. This task is made more complicated by the fact that the one place that seems to hold the most answers, the abbey's famous library, is the one place he is not permitted. Like any good detective, he gets his answers anyway. The main mystery plot is intertwined with monastic politics, political intrigues, and intriguing personal relationships. Sometimes the discourses on logic or heresy, which can get quite long, distract from the plot, but they are interesting and the only thing I have to complain about, with the exception of Adso's sometimes irritating lack of judgment, which can easily be excused by his youth. The novel is even, as far as I can tell, quite historically accurate. The monastery itself and most of the characters are fictional, but the politics and the heresies are real, which is quite impressive.

Unfortunately, I never figured out the import of the title. The last line of the book has the words "name" and "rose" in it, but as it's Latin (which is peppered throughout the monks' speech) I couldn't understand the rest. I naturally think of Shakespeare, but as he writes several centuries after The Name of the Rose is set and the only meaning I can think of is fairly weak, such a connection seems unlikely.

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