The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world. You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.

The Name of the Rose is a mystery story set in an Italian abbey in 1327. It follows a young novice monk, Adso, and his master, William, who have been sent to the abbey on a mission concerning suspected heresy. When they arrive at the abbey, however, seven of the monks die, one after the other, in mysterious circumstances, and Adso and William become detectives in the murder investigation. That is as far as I will summarise the plot, because if there is one word with which I can describe this book, it’s ‘complex’! The reader is plunged into the medieval world of scholarly philosophy, apocalyptic prophesies, political drama and heretical sects, and I found it all quite difficult to understand, but I think it’s like arriving in a foreign country without a guide; no one explains everything to you and you need to absorb the local culture for yourself as time goes on. Sometimes while reading I felt that I’d only taken in half the book and I’d need to re-read it to try to understand the rest, and even then there would probably still be a lot that I had completely missed! I think this is due to the density of the book; it’s completely loaded with detail, and I think the author must have an incredible obsession with the medieval period. He certainly succeeded in creating a complete and unique world (and I think it must be significant that the book takes place over seven days), and entering a new world has to include some effort and just plain old confusion.

It’s not completely true that the reader has no guide through this strange world, because the tale is all told quite engagingly by Adso, the young novice, who now in his old age is recalling the events of his youth. Adso is a loveable and innocent character, although intelligent and able to assist his master in his detective work, and I liked the way that the narrative enabled the reader to see beyond Adso’s thoughts and interpret the plot with a modern eye. In fact, it is quite a witty and amusing book for that reason. Adso is therefore something of an ‘unreliable narrator’ because clearly the modern reader won’t agree with all his medieval ideas, but the book doesn’t allow us to look back on the Middle Ages from a position of superiority; I think it shows what a rich and complicated world it was, if very alien to us now. I also felt drawn to William, because he is quite a modern character, and tends to be more sceptical and less devout than the other characters, opposing the bloodthirsty inquisitions and torture of heretics. I think the book is showing how secular ideas began to break through into medieval times, and these ideas are embodied in the character of William.

The characters are nearly all male, as you might expect from a novel set in a monastery, and a female reader can only really imagine herself into this world as an outsider, since women are described by the monks as being sinful and the cause of vice in men. There is the curious sense that women have a great amount of power over men through their sexuality, although it’s described as being something evil. The one female character who actually appears in the story, as opposed to simply being mentioned by others, is a girl hanging around one night in the abbey kitchen with whom Adso breaks his monastic vows of chastity. It is quite sad (for us in modern times) that Adso is completely lovelorn but feels he has done something sinful which he can never repeat (even though he can’t help feeling that there was something good in the whole affair as well). The way the girl is unnamed is also somehow quite moving. ‘That was the only earthly love of my life, and I could not, then or ever after, call that love by name.’

I think that women were not completely invisible and unremembered in medieval times, however, and one of the ways they could exert power was through being seen as visionaries or saints. Even though I wasn’t particularly interested in medieval literature at university and preferred studying the modern periods, I remember really liking writing an essay about medieval women mystics, and it was interesting to discover that this was a way (the only way?) that women could write and be acceptable to the male world, perhaps because their writings were presented as being divinely inspired rather than the works of their own minds. Various characters in the novel tell stories of their involvement in extreme religious sects, and women seem to have played a prominent role, even becoming leaders, in some of these groups. I found it interesting to learn about how radical as well as violent these sects were, and how many of them encouraged polygamy and denied the existence of hell and promoted other ideas that were not at all welcome to the church.

In general, intellectual pride is seen by characters in the novel as a sin; in fact many traits that we see now as just human, maybe even positive, were (it seems at least in this book) viewed as sinful in the Middle Ages. The novel is about curiosity and the love of knowledge, which is obviously punished in the Bible, and also leads to all kinds of intrigue and drama in the abbey, in that the monks’ curiosity is denied and must be pursued in secret. One of my favourite passages in the book is when William and Adso dare to enter and explore the library, a wonderful and very mysterious place that is forbidden to nearly all the monks. The Name of the Rose is a novel in which ideas and learning are highly important, and more emotion is felt over books and libraries than over almost anything else; the only time (I think) in the novel that William sheds a tear is over a book.

The Name of the Rose was quite different from what I usually read. Although it’s not a conscious decision, I realise that I usually choose books that are based more around atmosphere, place and (most of all) character, and although all those things are important in this novel, it’s mainly a very intellectual and plot-driven book, which lures the reader into attempting to understand both the murder mystery and the elaborate and unfamiliar world that the author has created.

 

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