The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

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 Name of the Rose

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.

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14 responses to “The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

  1. So wholeheartedly agree with your review of this cripping yet challenging book. Eco has an amazing ‘historical imagination’ – a quality not possessed by all academics. It is very annoying that the latin doesn’t get helpfully translated. I have recently read Eco’s ‘The Prague Cemetery’ which is quite vicious and amusing and firstly shockingly anti-semitic. It really brings us 21st-century folk slap up against some very unpleasant 19th-century bigotry. Another challenging read!

    • The Prague Cemetery is the only one of Eco’s novels that I haven’t yet read so I’ll look forward to that. I believe it is an attempt to examine and explain anti-Semitism in Europe, as you say.
      My personal favourite of his books is The Island of the Day Before, but then, I love ships and desert islands so that’s hardly a surprise!

  2. It has been far too long since I read this book last; I remember it being incredibly dense and quite exceptional.

    It’s distant because of the setting and era it depicts (which as you say in your thoughts on historical fiction more generally shouldn’t resemble the modern day) but at the same time the distance is a virtue. Perhaps this is linked to the importance of semiotics; as I recall both Barthes and Berger touch on how imagery creates the sense of a culture or thing – and its associations – even without plainly stating them. Thus a historical novel can be read similarly, as creating the idea of the past and associations about it, for better or worse.

    • And this book is particularly rich in signs and symbols, showing how it affects the world view of the characters.
      The Name of the Rose is also constructed so we have two steps between us and the events of the story. There is a narrator, who is introduced in a prologue and explains how he came by the manuscript via a wonderful shaggy dog story. That narrator admits that he is reconstructing the manuscript from notebooks and memory.
      Then we see old Adso who had been the author of the original manuscripy, also telling us of those far-off times which he may or may not have remembered correctly. It all helps create the illusion that the invented world is real.
      This time around I was re-reading the novel and I still enjoyed it enormously despite knowing full well who and what was lying behind the horrid crimes at the monastery. It is definitely worth picking up again.

      • It was so long ago I read it I’ve forgotten – your reference to it being a shaggy dog story reminds me in some ways of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, with its themes of reconstructing a life through its cultural artefacts…

      • Although I wasn’t over fond of The Mysterious Flame, I did like that idea that fiction is a prime mover in constructing our personality. He also implies that pulp fiction and comics are perhaps even more important than high literature, because we encounter them first, and at a very impressionable age. I can relate to that. I have a better memory for the books I read as a child than for the events of my own life!

  3. Fantastic début novel, which in itself is beyond impressive…I love this, the borges references, were unknown to me at the time but I have since secured the complete works and been reading them here and there and realising the depth that Eco must have gone into, not only to be widely read but researched.

    It really does feel like the arguments are current and that you are wholly susumed into the world…I remember reading The Island of the Day Before and almost being convinced that the sun did revolve around the Earth, such are Eco’s characters voices. So well thought out and real.

    • It really does feel utterly real, right down to the cold stones of the kitchen or the buckets of pig blood that the monks are using to make black puddings.
      It is a wonderful book and it’s funny that it’s the only one of his works to have been turned into a movie. I rather like the Sean Connery film although I was surprised on reading up on the book that it was a bit of flop at the time.

  4. An amazing book, I agree. Didn’t think much of the film version, which did the novel a disservice, unless you just accepted the fact that book and film are different animals.

    • Do you think? I liked the film although it is much, much less dense than the novel. I particularly liked the actor playing the venerable Jorge with his weird and slightly crazed behaviour.

      • Long time since I saw the film, but I just didn’t get Sean Connery in that role, and I felt it didn’t do the book much justice. I did, however, like Jorge.

      • I think it’s worth another look because there are some great performances in there. Connery was an odd piece of casting, granted. In fact, depictions of William of Baskerville do tend to make the character look much more butch than he is described in the book. Look at the image on the cover of my 1986 paperback above: this is hardly the skinny intellectual with the beaky nose that appears in Adso’s description.

  5. I really should read this. I don’t as a rule have an interest in historical fiction, in large part for the reasons you cite at the opening to your piece, but clearly this is an exceptional exception.

    The untranslated Latin is a pain, after all everyone within the fiction would have understood it. I’d have thought translator endnotes might have been helpful there. Eco would have known that almost nobody could read it though so perhaps that would somehow have undermined his intent.

    Have you read Foucault’s Pendulum? I haven’t, but it’s often cited as being if not his best certainly one of his best.

    • I wondered if the Latin would have been more comprehensible to the original Italian readers? It did strike me as a bit odd too because many of the monks are from different countries, so surely all of their conversations would have been in Latin as a a lingua franca. In which case it doesn’t make sense to translate some bits and not others.
      I have indeed read Foucault’s Pendulum but not for many years and I want to give it another look. I remember it has some terrific sections with Doctor John Dee. I sense another blog post coming on…

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