RogerBW's Blog

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 22 January 2016

1980 historical mystery. In 1327, Friar William of Baskerville and his novice Adso of Melk try to solve a series of murders at a monastery in northern Italy.

There's a phenomenon I often meet with books and other media which have a reputation for being "difficult": hard-core fans claim to love them, but they have great trouble explaining why they love them or expounding on any of the themes beyond the basics. I think that part of it at least is a desire to be seen as one of the smart guys who understand rather than the stupid guys who don't.

With that in mind I'm not going to claim to have understood this book, but I think one could make a pretty good case that there is, at the core and by design, nothing to be understood. Even a tale told by a very clever man can be sound and fury if he wants it to be.

If you're going to do a post-modern deconstruction of the detective story in which not only does the protagonist not work out the solution but the very idea of solving mysteries is called into question, that's fair enough: your essential point is that there is no finality, no certainty, no real meaning to anything. But spending over 180,000 words to say, in the end, "this entire exercise has been pointless and the time you spent reading it has been wasted" rubs me wrong. Even the title is deliberately as lacking in significance as could be arranged.

The writing is wilfully obscurantist, with diversions into untranslated Latin and occasionally German, and long digressions on Aristotelian philosophy and various millennial heresies. Maybe it's because I'd just finished the entirely straightforward Skeleton Hill, which contained several side notes that did come back to the main plot in the end, but I found myself thinking of this material as pure padding; there's certainly an awful lot of it, and the reader has no way of prioritising it into what might be important in the rest of the story and what's colour that can be enjoyed but need not be held in the mind. Yes, yes, there's the dual papacy and the Church's internal fight over apostolic poverty, but these aren't new and strange ideas to me; this period is one in which I've spent a certain amount of mental time already, and so my reaction, rather than "gosh what an amazing revelation" as apparently intended, is "ho hum, that again". Homosexuality is no longer as remarkable or shocking a thing to put in a book as it was in Italy in the late 1970s. And… you're telling me blind Jorge de Burgos is a nod to blind Jorge Luis Borges? Oh, wow, man. Deep. To be fair, the obsession of the mediæval churchman with God and sin is well-handled: everything is evaluated in terms of how it will affect one's immortal soul.

Of course, as a story set in a monastery you don't expect a lot of female characters, but having the one female character here not only discussed solely in terms of how the narrator feels about her but also quite literally nameless seems more offensive than simply not including any women at all would have been.

Symbols about symbols about symbols.

This was a choice for the YSDC Book Club.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 02:03pm on 22 January 2016

    I seem to recall enjoying it but then I'm a bit bonkers for Aristotelian philosophy and millennial heresies.

    I also recall liking the motive behind the murder a lot.

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:25am on 23 January 2016

    I've not read the book but I rather like the film of it with Sean Connery. Based on what you say, the film made some changes, but possibility not too many.

    And on my recent river cruise I went into the abbey library that is supposed to have inspired this book. Alas not allowed to take pictures at all in the library. Melk Abbery Durnstein if I recall correctly.

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