The Name of the Rose

There have been many occasions when I have realised that I am a rather naïve reader.  I pick up a book, read it, and if it’s fiction, follow along enjoying the story.  Sometimes, years later, I’ll read the same book a second time.  For good books, that’s often a revelation:  older, I can see more, both in the complexity of the story and in the insights into the characters.  It’s been like that with Don Quixote by Cervantes.  I think I’ve read it at least five times, and each time around it becomes an even richer experience, as the events become the background, or perhaps better described as the setting, rather than the sole focus of my attention.

The Name of the Rose, written by Umberto Eco back in 1980 (although it didn’t appear in English until 1983) is more than that.  It’s like a traditional English plum pudding.  Each time you dip in you pull out more gifts.  A very special plum pudding, a ‘magic pudding’, because there is always more to be found and enjoyed, and the gifts are embedded in some very rich material!  The setting is an Italian medieval castle run by the Benedictines as a monastery, with a diverse range of characters including cellarers, herbalists, gardeners, librarians, and young novices.   It’s a setting where we discover that first one, and eventually half a dozen monks are found murdered in diverse and bizarre ways.  It’s a setting where a bookish, very erudite Franciscan has been sent to solve the mysterious events, which grow in complexity and confusion after his arrival.  It’s the setting for an author’s masterpiece.

The events in The Name of the Rose take place in the 14th century.  The timing is deliberate, when religious certainties are under threat from emerging new scientific understandings and wild, changing and contradictory social events.  Our investigator is William of Baskerville, from England, a student from the philosophical school of Roger Bacon and William of Occam, the founders of cognitive empiricism, a philosophy based on the exact examination of real evidence revealed by the senses and thus a perfect tool for unravelling a mystery.  To add to the complexity, the story is narrated by Adso, a young novice who idolises William.  Although Adso comes across as somewhat naïve, he plays a key role, and he’s often speaking in the name of the religious faith that it seems likely William has lost, at least in part.

The Name of the Rose is no easy read.  The narrative includes sections describing ecclesiastical councils or theological debates, and others analysing in detail the positions of various European powers on the reform of the Franciscan Order. There are also frequent (and untranslated) quotations in classical  and medieval Latin.  If William of Baskerville is trying to understand murders, we are also trying to understand what’s happening at the same time as attempting to keep up with diversions in a whole that is best described as a labyrinth.  Umberto Eco is known as a semiologist ad so the murder mystery also involves the pursuit of meaning – in words, symbols, ideas, in every conceivable sign the visible universe contains.

Each time I have read The Name of the Rose, I have discovered a different book.  You can just ride along with the core story, beautifully narrated.  You can choose to follow all William’s by-ways or place your focus on Adso’s more linear account.  It is fairly easy to conclude that Umberto Eco is William.  But this is Eco the philosopher and essayist, while the Eco who writes ‘The Name of the Rose’ is Adso: a voice young and old at the same time, speaking from nostalgia for love and passion. William shapes the story with his insight; Adso gives it his own pathos.  He will never think, as William does, that  “books are not made to be believed but to be subjected to inquiry”; Adso writes to be believed.

The year of this story is 1327.  William and Adso have arrived at the monastery to attend a theological debate, neutral ground for a dispute between the Pope and the Franciscans.  The debate concerns the question of apostolic poverty, that monks should be medicants, attempting to live their lives without ownership of lands or accumulation of money, a view that follows the precepts set out in the Gospel of Luke.  However, when they arrive, the monastery is unsettled.  Adelmo of Otranto, an illuminator revered for his illustrations, has died – is it a suicide or murder?   Adelmo was skilled at manuscript artwork, especially concerning religious matters. William is asked by the monastery’s abbot, Abo of Fossanova, to investigate the death.  We soon realise this is going to be an unusual novel: during William’s enquiry he has a debate with one of the oldest monks in the abbey, Jorge of Burgos, about the theological meaning of laughter, which Jorge despises.

Well, debates are fine, and offer an interlude to keep the reader alert.  However, the very next day, a scholar and translator, Venantius of Salvemec, is found dead in a vat of pig’s blood. Interesting?  Severinus, the herbalist, tells William that Venantius’s body had black stains on the tongue and fingers, which suggests poison. The librarian, Malachi of Hildesheim, bans William and Adso from entering the labyrinthine library, a prohibition which we know they will ignore.  They discover there’s a hidden room, from which a valuable book disappears.  Oh, and when Adso returns to the library alone in the evening, he’s seduced by a peasant girl, his first sexual experience.  I hope you’re keeping up:  this is just the beginning!

On the fourth day, another monk is found drowned in a bath, his fingers and tongue showing stains similar to those found on Venantius.  Time for another detour, and a theological dispute.  Then, the next day, guess what – there’s another body: Severinus, after obtaining a ‘strange’ book, is found dead in his laboratory.  Keep up, because another day later the librarian, Malachi, near death, starts talking about scorpions.  Nicholas of Morimundo, the glazier, tells William that whoever is the librarian would then become the Abbot.  I think that’s enough on the plot, but I have to add the pages in a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics were laced with an unidentified plant-based poison, on the assumption that a reader would have to lick his fingers to turn them.  Good way to bump someone off!  Eventually, the series of deaths come to an end, and a fire, which kills the murderer, burns down the library, and then spreads to destroy the abbey as a whole.  Hard to believe, but it all makes sense.

Perhaps I should step back from the book and focus on the author for a while.  Umberto Eco was born in 1932, and he was a polymath, his range of expertise covering medieval history, semiotics, writing fiction, and cultural, political and social commentaries.  In many ways The Name of the Rose is an astonishing display of all these areas of expertise, adding in biblical analysis and medieval studies.  He was a prolific writer, producing books for children, translations from French into English and vice versa, scholarly monographs on history, semiotics and literary theory.  In the midst of all this writing, he was appointed as professor of Semiotics at Milan Polytechnic, and soon after, in 1975, Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna.  He also managed to be a visiting professor to various US universities, including Northwestern, Yale and Columbia.

By the time he completed The Name of the Rose, in 1980, he was still busy publishing books on semiotics.  However, he wasn’t done with fiction, and Foucault’s Pendulum appeared in 1988.  Almost as complex as The Name of the Rose, this novel concerns three under-employed editors at a minor publishing house who decide to amuse themselves by inventing a conspiracy theory. Their conspiracy, which they call ‘The Plan’, is about an immense and intricate plot to take over the world by a secret order descended from the Knights Templar.  However, what began as fun soon becomes the source of danger and mayhem:  outsiders hear about the Plan and believe that the men have discovered the secret to regaining the lost treasure of the Templars.  Equally unusual was his third novel. The Island of the Day Before (1994), set in the 17th century, is about a man stranded on a ship within sight of an island which he believes is on the other side of the international dateline. The man can’t escape (he can’t swim) and most of the book is concerned with  his reminiscences on his life and the adventures that brought him to be stranded.

Umberto Eco continued his academic work.  It was some of those books that kept my attention on his work, especially Kant and the Platypus (how could I not be attracted by a book with that title), another study in semiotics, and even harder to follow than his novels!  I am not sure why this happened, but somewhere in the early 21st Century, his writing – both fiction and non-fiction – become more pointed and concerned with contemporary issues.  The transition point seems to have been two books, On Beauty (2004) and On Ugliness (2007), two fascinating historical treatments of aesthetics.

However, The Name of the Rose managed to combine semiotics, medieval research and a great story in such a way it remains my favourite of all his works.  It was inevitable that it would arouse criticism.  Some critics saw his work as brilliant, and others considered it was pandering to popular tastes.  That wonderful curmudgeon, Roger Scruton, attacked Eco saying, “[he seeks] the rhetoric of technicality, the means of generating so much smoke for so long that the reader will begin to blame his own lack of perception, rather than the author’s lack of illumination, for the fact that he has ceased to see”.   Nicholas Penny, an art historian, commented “Eco may have first been seduced from intellectual caution, if not modesty, by the righteous cause of ‘relevance’ (a word much in favour when the earlier of these reviews appeared) – a cause which Medievalists may be driven to embrace with particularly desperate abandon.”  That’s at one extreme.  For others Eco has been praised for his combination of wit and encyclopedic knowledge, as well as his ability to make the  abstruse  and academic accessible and engaging.

As far as I am concerned, his books are always just on the edge of what I am able understand (the passages in ancient Greek one example of bits I simply don’t get), but they are wonderfully enjoyable.  More to the point, you are expected to work away at the text, not assume that all is set out for you!

Here’s an example.  One of the monks, Benno, is explaining why books are important, and not just religious texts:

“We live for books.  A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.  Perhaps then you will understand what happened on that occasion [when there had been an angry interchange about whether the abbey should only focus on books based on divine inspiration].  Venantius, who knows … who knew Greek very well, said that Aristotle had devoted a second book of the Poetics specifically to laughter, and that if a philosopher of such greatness had devoted a whole book to laughter, then laughter must be important.  Jorge said that many fathers had devoted entire books to sin, which is an important thing, but evil; and Venantius said that as far as he knew, Aristotle had spoken of laughter as something good, and an instrument of truth; and then Jorge asked him contemptuously whether by any chance he had read this book of Aristotle; and Venantius said no one could have read it, because if was never found and is perhaps lost forever.  And, in fact William of Moerbeke never had it in his hands.  Then Jorge said that if it had not been found, this was because it had never been written, because Providence did not want futile things glorified.  I wanted to calm everyone’s spirit, because Jorge is easily angered and Venantius was speaking deliberately to provoke him, and so I said that in part of the Poetics that we do know, and in the Rhetoric, there are to be found many wise observations on witty riddles, and Venantius agreed with me.  Now with us was Pacificus of Tivoli, who knows the pagan poets well, and he said that when it comes to these witty riddles, no one surpasses the African poets.  He quoted a riddle by Symphosius:

Est domus in terris, clara quae voce resultat,
Ipsa domus resonat, tacitus sed non sonat hospes,
Ambo tamen currunt, hospes simul et domus una.”

The text continues, but there is no translation of the riddle.  If you want to know more, you had to translate (or find a translation), and then work out the answer to the riddle.  If you know Latin, fine, but if not, you have to find it in English, where it reads:

A house there is which rings throughout the land with song,
The house itself doth sing, the guests in silence throng.
Yet both the house and guests together move along.

Now, that’s a lot of work for what is nothing more than aside, and the first time I certainly didn’t bother to do any of that, but about the third time around I was sufficiently intrigued to realise I had to sort it out (as above).  Incidentally, the answer to the riddle is fish in a river!

This is one brief extract from a complex 500-page novel.  However, it might explain why The Name of the Rose is such a challenging and yet compulsive story.  There are dozens, probably hundreds, of side excursions that invite you.  Are you one of those simplistic people who just wants to know who is killing monks and why?  Fine, do what I did the first time around, and ignore every one of those by-ways.  Are you caught up in the intricacy and complexity of the story and want to chase down snippets and excursions away from the main story.  There’s plenty to engage you, and I have still to track down some Greek quotes.

Does Umberto Eco like to play with his readers, giving them challenges and puzzles to ensure they become really engaged?  Or is it the case that he has what one of my teachers once described as a ‘dustbin head’, a person whose mind was full of lots of discarded bits and pieces?  Or, perhaps, he just likes showing off?  One thing is clear, to read fiction by Umberto Eco is to undertake a journey, one which has a number of twists and turns, and several optional red herrings to chase down.

His non-fiction writing is rather different.  He draws on a vast collection of knowledge, and makes the exploration of beauty, ugliness or the works of other writers fascinating and quite often surprising.  These are books to dip into, to read a chapter or two and think about the territory covered.  However, clever erudite Umberto Eco is allowed full scope to dazzle you in his fictional works.  For me, they are wonderful, packed full of jewels to enjoy along the way, plums as Nabokov would call them.  If you have the time and the inclination, dig into his text and enjoy the fruits of his scholarship, while simultaneously relishing the underlying structure of the plum pudding he offers.  Not sure?  Just sample the first few pages (the first, un-numbered page opens with saying ‘Naturally, a manuscript’), which sets The Name of the Rose up as a translation from a book written by ‘Abbé Vallet’, who we are told never existed …. What a trickster!