One of the pleasures of reading is discovering literature that delights, edifies, spellbinds and generally exceeds all expectations. A second, related (and equally hit-and-miss) pleasure is re-reading these books decades later to see how they've stood the test of time: a dated flash in the pan; or a true classic. Umberto Eco's debut novel - lauded at the time with a couple of literary awards - is in the latter camp. An exceptional work in all respects.
The book starts with a note by an unnamed publisher about how the manuscript of an elderly monk named Adso - the story we will soon read - came to light more than 600 years after its writing. This is followed by Adso's own prologue, which provides political and religious context of the time - an event in his youth in 1327 - and an introduction to his then master, William, a senior monk to whom he is apprenticed and who is travelling to an unnamed abbey in northwestern Italy for reasons unknown.
The story, broken into seven days' events, begins with Adso and William's arrival and the abbot's request of William - apparently known for his pensive power and sleuthing skills - to examine some strange occurrences in the abbey that would be better solved and remedied than made public. So far, a leisurely beginning of esoteric facts, oblique philosophical dialogue, and little action, but one which builds steadily and constantly in pace and complexity to a fast paced conclusion.
Early narrative background and philosophical discussions between characters later become central to the plot, to the novel's themes, to the motivation of characters, and ultimately to the broader questions that Eco leaves us pondering: the nature of good and evil; the nature of belief, worship, religion, and god; and the nature of man. Dialogue and narrative that seem to have little bearing on advancement of the plot - seeming just to enhance the sense of place and time or even philosophical digressions - end up later as important threads in the increasingly complex writing. Like a tightly worded short story, Eco leaves no loose ends and employs no filler. At the conclusion all we can do is enjoy the mystery's conclusion, marvel at intricacies that Eco has managed to weave into it, and reflect on the questions raised.
Eco also has some fun along the way, taking half a page to describe a pair of eyeglasses, quoting Shakespeare ('It's Greek to me') 400 years before his birth, and using the same language to describe the death of a martyr and the narrator's first sexual experience. Fittingly for a labyrinthine plot mixing fact and fiction, and featuring a library and actual Labyrinths, Eco pays direct homage to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian master of complex, convoluted fiction, with a namesake character. As Eco writes, "to know what one book says you must read others."
Unlike many writers of historical fiction, who research a topic and then weave together a plot using their newfound knowledge, Eco starts with a lifetime of knowledge of his subject - he is a professor of semiotics and a noted historian and philosopher - and conjures up a fantastical, tightly worded mystery that's far richer and erudite than the popular fiction writers could hope for. While the story will entertain those seeking just a rollicking story, their time would be better spent with authors such as Clavell, Michener, Follett, Brown.
The Name of the Rose is a richly rewarding modern day classic.
on February 28, 2007
Umberto Eco is internationally renowned as an author, a philosopher, a literary critic and a historian. He is also a professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna and lives in Milan. "The Name of the Rose", his debut novel, was first published in Italy in 1980 and became a bestseller throughout the world. It was also adapted for the big screen in 1986, a version that starred Sean Connery and Christian Slater.
"The Name of the Rose" is set in the fourteenth century and is told by Adso of Melk - an aged Benedictine Abbot looking back to a journey he took as a novice. Adso's father was a German nobleman loyal to Louis the Bavarian and arranged for the young Adso to travel with him to Italy - there, he hoped to see Louis crowned Holy Roman Emperor. However, with his father's time subsequently taken up with the Siege of Pisa, Adso was placed in the care of William of Baskerville - not only a shrewd, learned and wise Franciscan, but also a former Inquisitor. Together, the pair travel to a Benedictine abbey in the northern Italian mountains.
The arena in which William and Adso operate is at least as political as it is religious. There are great differences of opinion between the orders on a number of topics - the most relevant to the story involves a difference in opinion about poverty between the Franciscan Order and the Pope. Since the Pope and the Emperor don't see eye-to-eye either, Louis has obviously sided with the Franciscans. The Order's Head, Michael of Cesena, has been summoned several times to Avignon - where the Papal Court was held at the time - officially to deal conclusively with the matter. However, since many suspect this would actually involve Michael being charged with heresy, the Emperor feels it best if Michael travels as part of an official Imperial delegation. As the whole matter is proving increasingly difficult to deal with, a preliminary meeting has been arranged to lay out the opposing points of view. William has been appointed the Emperor's representative, and the meeting is taking place at the abbey to which he and Adso are travelling.
As it happens, the pair are given much more to think about than just the meeting. Not long before William and Adso arrived, one of the abbey's most skilled illuminators - Adelmo of Otranto - had been found dead at the foot of some cliffs beneath the abbey. The Abbot suspects the young monk was murdered, and asks William to investigate. Things are not made entirely easy for the pair : although Adelmo may have been pushed to his death from the upper floor of the library, they are forbidden from entering that area. Nevertheless, with the meeting imminent, they know it's vital to have everything cleared up as soon as possible - preferably with out any more deaths...
This is a hugely enjoyable book - the only real flaw is that it's occasionally a little over-descriptive. However, it makes a nice change to read a murder-mystery than relies solely on the skills of the investigator - particularly one as likeable as William - without any help from forensics, fingerprinting or DNA sampling. The 'back-story', relating to the meeting, added a nice political spin to things. It also added a certain amount of panic for some of the characters, as the Pope's representative is also a practising Inquisitor . Very highly recommended.
on March 24, 2006
I am confused by those who wrote that people only say they read this book because they want to sound smart. I hate to break it to you, but this book is actually good and enjoyable, and I hope you will try again.
This book is for people who love mysteries, but are frustrated at how fast they are read. Christies go in a day, as does Da Vinci Code, whereas this one has more to chew and the mystery doesn't insult your intelligence like the "Da Vinci Code" (e.g., reminding you that Da Vinci is Italian, that Paris is indeed in France, etc.).
I mean, I don't get daunted by long books anymore because I like the act of reading itself, and having a long book means not having to look for another for awhile.
Another thing: I took a course on heresy in college, and many of conclusions that can be drawn from this book are right on. The more he discusses the distinctions between the different sects, the less the distinction can be made between holy orders and heretical sects. He really brings you through the whole argument, from different characters' perspectives, so you get the whole picture.
I also learned more about the Middle Ages from this book, about how rich their lives were even then, albeit with different information, theories, heroes, etc., than we are used to.
on June 26, 2004
The Name of the Rose has gained such a reputation for its detail and erudition that its finest attribute too often goes unmentioned: for the lover of books and ideas, philosophy and history, this book is fun. If you are intrigued by the idea of being immersed in a 14th century monastery, solving a murder mystery, and pondering questions about language, knowledge, and meaning along the way, then you will likely enjoy this book. If you aren't, you won't.
Yes, there are some obscure references (or, I should say, I noticed a few obscure references and have good reason to believe there are many more I did not notice) and, yes, there is some untranslated Latin. If the rest of the book interests you, these matters at the very least will not much hinder you; they will probably make the book that much better to reread. Mr. Eco approvingly quotes John Barth in the postscript: "My own analogy [in describing his "ideal postmodern author"] would be with good jazz or classical music: one finds much on successive listenings or close examination of the score that one didn't catch the first time through; but the first time through should be so ravishing--and not just to specialists--that one delights in the replay." With The Name of the Rose, Eco lives up to this criterion.
Intelligent books (or books perceived intelligent) tend to attract flatterers--people who fancy themselves clever for having read and praised a good book--and their inverse--people who fancy themselves clever for dispraising a book that flatterers praise. The Name of the Rose has attracted such chatter, and this is a shame--it is too good a book to simply be "gotten through." It is difficult in the sense that it is rich and worth thinking about; it is only as hard a read as the head that reads it.
on December 1, 2003
I knew nothing of this book when I opened it; I had picked it up literally because I needed something to read and I liked the cover. It completely blew away my expectations. Eco does a stunning job of depicting daily life in the past, even daily life gone awry. This book takes you back in time into the world of the monks, a world that is incredibly deep, lush, and detailed. The characters and the motifs give this plot great flavor; they are all well-developed. Eco narrates with the confidence of an eyewitness observer and clearly knows what he is talking about. Yes, the book is a challenging read, one which will be time consuming. If you're looking for something light and quick, this isn't it. Even so, a lack of knowledge of history or Latin or religion will not keep you from enjoying this book; while I was reading it, the characters themselves taught me about their world. Try to view those background-knowledge challenges as something that makes this book good enough to read twice, and enjoy it!
Umberto Eco doesn't just tell a story; this much is obvious from all of his novels, not the least of which is The Name of the Rose. He has crafted a wonderfully intriguing medieval murder mystery (at heart) and fleshed it out with splendid characters (especially the protagonist, who must rely on good ol'-fashioned detective work to crack the case), a well-realized backdrop of history and location, and incorporated cyptology and theology for good measure. Smart without being overwhelming, taut without being heavy-handed, historical without being boring, The Name of the Rose is not just one of Eco's best books, but one of the most enjoyable reads I've ever had.
on May 12, 2004
I hate mysteries. I really do. I'm terribly sorry but that is the honest to goodness truth. This is different; obviously or why in God's name would I have bothered to read it?
Struck by the phrase "apocolyptic terror" I impulsively bought it and immediately began to read, foresaking all previoius engagements, hoping against hope that I had finally found a mystery that followed a path not yet trodden.
Well, being a student of Thomas Aquinas I was immediately impressed at finding dear William to be a Thomist. Wonderful! Well done Eco! Now, about the story... I loved it, I read while I ought to have slept, I read while I ate, I read while I walked on the treadmill... I read and I read and... then I finished it. And as I closed the book I heaved a sigh. I missed William, and Adso, and oh the glories of a library labyrinth!
The Name of the Rose was an extraordinarily crafted tale that was so intensely layered and richly related that I am compelled to quote Anthony Burgess "No man should know that much."
Eco has effortlessly transported us into a time that so few truly grasp. The blind faith of the people; the ease with which the simple strayed; the vanity of the knowledge that in those days meant power. Aside from a difficult mystery with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, this story held fascinating philosophical debates that penetrated depths of history of which I have never even heard. This novel is not merely a mystery or an historical fiction, it is a philosophical and psychological study that occasionally leads you to sit and think and any book that leads to contemplation is a rare treasure.
This is the first of Eco's works that I have had the pleasure to enjoy but I intend to find and read all the rest. What a master! What a mind!
on February 27, 2004
If you have read some of the other reviewers, you will often hear that this book is a difficult, dense read. It does contain many untranslated Latin phrases, but I submit that the main thrust of it is easy to follow, if you simply pay attention to the parts that you do understand, and realize that the characters, a young German novice, Adso, traveling with his English monk "master," William of Baskerville, stop at the Abbey of Melk, in Italy, where a conference in which he will take part, is imminent. Throughout the book the religious viewpoint is dominant, as one might expect since religious matters dominated much of philosophy as well as theology in the early 1300s, where the tale is placed.
William is to be involved in a conference between representatives of the Pope, John XXII, and the Emperor of France, who are in conflict over matters of church doctrine. William is representing the interests of the Emperor, in the role of a conciliator.
There is much dialogue in The Name of the Rose about conflicting doctrine and splinter groups in the church, many of which the mother church, primarily through the person of the Pope, declare to be heretics.
If this sounds deadly dull to the reader, it is not as bad as it might sound. Indeed, given the history of that time--much of which is related here--it plays a large part in the mystery itself.
The story is told through the eyes of Adso, the novice, who wrote the manuscript the story was found in, supposedly, as an old man long after the occurences it descibes.
Murders in the abbey play a central role in the story, and William, as a former Inquisitor, is tasked with their solution by the Abbot, Abo. Involved is the abbey's library, which is off limits to all save the librarian and his assistant (the latter becomes one of the murder victims) and the monks employed in the Scriptorium, where they copy and illuminate the library's treasured volumes--one of the greatest collections in the world at that time.
I find this book to be gripping, despite my lack of knowledge of Latin, and not too difficult to follow. The viewpoint of Adso is that, one quickly discovers, is based upon his view of the world as he sees it, given only the knowledge that a fourteenth century youth would actually have. They say it has been made into a movie. I will have to get a copy, to see if it does justice to the book.
I have developed an interest in the work of Umberto Eco, the author, and will have to read some of his other works.
Joseph (Joe) Pierre
author of The Road to Damascu: Our Journey Through Eternity
and other books
on January 20, 2004
Some notes on this book;
*You can read this book in a few days.*
*You can skip some of the psedu-quasi-religion on your first reading but it is easy stuff if you do not rush it.*
*Hollywood made it into a film so it can not be that hard*
*Christian Slater even managed to get it.*
*Try reading "The Tibetan Book of the Dead by W.Y.Evans-Wentz" if you think this is hard.*
The Name of the Rose is quite complex in its initial appearance which according to the author is a work of non-fiction derived from an old manuscript written by a monk called Abo of Melk that Umberto Eco has translated for all the world to see and read. It is a 13th century tale of this monk's youth spent as an apprentice to an ex-inquisitor, Brother William of Baskerville, who has been asked by an abbot to uncover the truth behind a rather disturbing murder at his beloved abbey. The story is quick to adopt an investigative posture which not only involves all the hallmarks of a "whodunit" type story but also has Abo, and many other characters, questioning their own faith and the faith of others.
The story is much more than just another detective yarn as Umberto Eco continues to depict scenes of spiritual debates, holy disorder, political corruption, religious rebellion, crimes of heresy and sexual misconduct which are as a contradictory to the life of a monk as the murderous crimes themselves.
There is much in this book to dissuade many from reading it in its entirety. The Name of the Rose is often cited as the "bestseller that has never been read." There is much truth to this as I myself have often found that certain passages and lengthy debates would make one nod off as if listening to a sermon that carries with it a haze of sleepiness. No doubt many of the monks in this story have felt the same way too. There are many versus in Latin and references to historical religious figures that have no direct impact on the story but are only dished up to help Abo, and the reader, derive conclusions to many of the questions found in the mind of a novice that are philosophical and metaphysical in nature. You have these questions too.
The Name of the Rose expounds on the correlations between order and chaos, much of which is linked directly to William's own ethics when carrying out his investigation of the abbey.
It is a hard book to read or follow because of its many Latin references, pseudo-religious-philosophical debates (there is not too much of it though) but is as equally a hard book to forget or stop reading. No doubt without the "whodunit" elements this book would more suitable as special treatise hidden among the abbey's own Aedificium. Very few books leave you feeling somewhat attached to the story but The Name of the Rose ushers with it a very subtle relationship between you and William who acts as a farther type figure to Abo who is your eyes and ears in the story. Needless to say the actual impact of the book does not hit home until the final three or four pages. Everything else beforehand has been of interest to you but you don't quite know why. The book actually ends up posing more questions than it attempts to answer and this in itself is what is at the heart of The Name of the Rose. The final vestibule of assertion is made only in saying that nothing can be confirmed at all and good men should not seek to hold fast to Earthly possessions which eventually return to that from which they came. . . . including this story.
You will read it again and that is why it is a keeper. Don't even bother looking for it in the library. Just buy it, appreciate it, take your time with it and raise your IQ.
on January 18, 2004
The famous Name of the Rose has been on the market for ages now. People generally tend to either love it or hate it - and I belong to the former category. I think that it makes for great reading.
The story of the book is about an educated monk in the 14th century (William Bakervile) and his novice-monk protege Adso. They come upon an abbey in the mountains of Italy for William to participate in a conference. However, their stay is complicated by a series of murders in the abbey which William and Adso begin to investigate. As a result, they step on some toes and disturb some powerful and vengeful ghosts.
The book is a hybrid. It can be seen as a detective story told in a very erudite and philosophical manner OR a book about semiotics, history and meaning disguised as a detective story. The book explores many medieval worldviews on the nature of humanity, religion and civilisation (as expressed by the characters). It speaks in detail of several topics related to Christianity - such as the poverty of Jesus and his laughter. It's amazing how such seemingly above-the-world ideas can be an integral part of a murder investigation!
But the main focus of the book is on knowledge - largely represented by the library in the abbey which contains a great collection of arcane and mystical texts.
I found the book very enjoyable to read as it combines intellectually dense material with a popular, almost pulp-like way of presenting it. As for people who accuse Umberto of being pretentious in his descriptions, in this book I think he sometimes gives more information than one would ask for to make the reader look deeper into the story (probably most useful for rereading). A great, clever, funny book - and a very modern medieval tale!