There are historical novels and historical novels. The worst ones are a pitiful piece of hackwork with the detail cribbed from Wikipedia. The characters walk, talk and think just like modern people while the historical background serves as little more than window-dressing.
There are other historical novels written by experts in the field who have spent long years soaking themselves in the milieu of those past times. These books transport you to an alien world where people’s values, hopes, expectations and fears are very different from our own. It is to this latter group that The Name of the Rose belongs.
The year is 1327. A killer stalks the corridors of a fortified monastery somewhere in the Italian Alps. Crime builds on crime with a terrifying pattern reminiscent of the coming of the Anti-Christ. Arriving for a conference brokering peace between the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, the English Franciscan William of Baskerville is asked to investigate. His investigation will take him into the shadowy world of Medieval monasticism where sinful desires must remain hidden at all costs.
Accompanying William is his young apprentice, Adso of Melk, who narrates the story from a distance of many decades. The old Also looks back on the events of that terrifying week and the actions of his young self with a sense of horror and excitement, as if he, like us, is fascinated in the misdeeds of which he was sometimes a willing accomplice.
The secret to the mysterious killings lies in the monastery’s library, which contains a labyrinth within. Alas, it is the only area of the abbey which William is forbidden to enter so he must gain knowledge of the library’s secrets from the monks who work with its ancient texts. They are hardly willing to aid him, being more interested in eventual salvation than solving crimes. Most memorable among them is the blind librarian, the venerable Jorge of Burgos (Eco’s homage to the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, who was himself a blind librarian).
The book is beautifully written, for example, here in the tale of the first death:
Adelmo of Otranto, a monk still young though already famous as a master illuminator, … had been found one morning by a goatherd at the bottom of the cliff below the Aedificium. Since he had been seen by other monks in choir during compline but had not reappeared at matins, he had probably fallen during the darkest hours of the night. The night of a great snowstorm, in which flakes as sharp as blades fell, almost like hail, driven by a furious south wind. Soaked by that snow, which had first melted and then frozen into shards of ice, the body had been discovered at the foot of the sheer drop, torn by the rocks it had struck on the way down.
As one would expect from a professor of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), the book is rich in illusion and imagery. Unfortunately, it is also rich in Latin, as can be seen in the passage above. That paragraph mercifully only includes words like aedificium, compline and matins. Elsewhere, there are long passages in Latin, often dropped into everyday conversations, which are often neither translated nor glossed.
Even though these Latin sections are impossible to understand, the temptation is to ignore them. The novel is weighed down by far too much back story concentrating on theological quibbles between monastic orders. At times, these discussions go on for pages at a time, which is utterly exasperating. In his later novels, Eco has a much better eye for which details to include and which to leave out.
Even the title appears only in Latin in the last line of the book. The Name of the Rose is one of those novels for which the title is almost meaningless, rather like Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Apparently it alludes to the elderly Adso looking back on this past time, and considering that though the events and people have long since passed, only the memory of them remains. We only have the name of the Rose, not the Rose itself.
The Name of the Rose is a work of genius. At its best, it wraps you in a thick blanket of snow as it takes you into a wonderfully realised Medieval community. Reading the novel is a strain at times but the end result is worth it, even though William of Baskerville must be one of the most disastrous detectives ever to grace the pages of crime fiction.