Review of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose
by Umberto Eco
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Second review: April 2020
Honestly, I don't have much to add to my review from 12 years ago (!). This remains an excellent mystery wrapped in deep medievalist philosophy and thought. It once again took me a long time to read, but it was a nice distraction from what's going on right now.
First review: December 2008
It took me a long time to finish this book (perhaps the longest time it's ever taken me to read a book). Umberto Eco sets out not just to provide another pulp fiction fodder for the masses, but to construct a richly-textured story--or rather, history--with elements of mystery, rhetoric, and religion. As a result of the book's depth, not to mention its lengthy passages of medieval rhetoric, I started this in October and am only now finishing it; I read other books on the side to keep myself occupied. But the length of time it takes me to read a book is irrelevant, as long as I enjoy it. And that I did.
By including discussions of contemporary events outside the secluded setting of the novel, Eco manages to draw me into 1327. The characters in the book are not cardboard cutouts, modern people wearing the clothing of fourteenth century monks but otherwise curiously resembling our own friends and family. Instead, their language, habits (no pun intended), and thought processes are those of fourteenth century monks. Yet at the same time, none of these digressions distract too much from the main plot. Sure, they may not be directly related to the mystery, but none of them feel artificially-induced for the sake of educating the reader about a particular facet of medieval life. Each conversation originates as a logical consequence of an event within the world of the novel. It helps that the narrator is, at the time of the events, a novice monk, companion to the protagonist--a Watson to William of Baskerville's Holmes would be the most obvious comparison, although not entirely accurate.
And what of our two main characters? Adso of Melk is everything a narrator needs to be. By having him tell the story much later in life, Eco can use the older, narrating Adso as a filter for the experiences of his younger self. We also get to see what life was like for a novice monk in the fourteenth century, the challenges he faces in an uncertain religious climate, and the temptations embodied by physical lust.
Adso's mentor, William of Baskerville, is a self-professed follower of Roger Bacon and William of Occam's schools of scientific method and deduction. As such, Eco devotes a good deal of dialogue to extolling the virtues of deductive reasoning and its function for an inquisitor. And this is the part where my estimation of The Name of the Rose rises from "enjoyable" to "clever": Eco has William spend so much time explaining his deductive methods that one becomes convinced he is a fourteenth century Shakespeare, and that a solution to the story's crime will naturally be forthcoming. So when it turns out that William actually fails, Eco's devotion to deduction provides a counterpoint to his exploration of a lack of order in the universe. Naturally, this is a problem for a monk who believes that there is a God who has a divine plan for every being in Creation. The existence of reasoning monks like William of Baskerville is therefore a quandary--how do they reconcile their two ideologies? Thus, Eco manages to raise quintessential metaphysical issues while still wrapping them around the nougaty goodness of an interesting plot.
For some, the length of the book and the ponderous pace of the first several chapters would make them discard it with a sigh of disinterest. I admit that at times I laboured to get through some of the particularly dense passages. Yet I persevered, and in the end, I feel rewarded. In fact, the failure of William to solve the crime in a timely fashion feels superior to the typical formula of a Christie or Conan Doyle mystery; I don't feel patronized because the detective has figured out the mystery when I could not. Rather, I enjoyed the journey for what it was: a dialogue between mentor and student, couched in a multiple-murder mystery at a monastery.
Eco explains his reasoning for writing The Name of the Rose (as well as his reasoning behind the title) in the postscript included in this edition. I liked the book; I loved the postscript. Not only did it make me appreciate parts of the book better, but I concur with many of Eco's remarks, not only as a reader, but as a writer. One part that I found particularly interesting was where he explains that he intentionally made the first one hundred pages a "penitential obstacle ... for the purpose of constructing a reader suitable for what comes afterward." This is something that many authors and readers often forget: not every story is meant for every person. People are, thankfully, infinitely diverse and different. Trying to cater to the tastes of everyone results in a very bland result. After all, reading a book is an investment. In order to deliver on that investment, the author wants to ensure that anyone still reading near the end of the book will enjoy the ending. The best way to do that is to weed out any other types of people near the beginning.
It's likely that I'll re-read this book in the future--several times, perhaps--and discover even deeper levels of meaning. These won't necessarily be the same interpretations you draw from the book; they might not even be the interpretations Eco intentionally designed for the book. That's the great thing about books so laden with symbolism and detail like The Name of the Rose: readers can find what they want in the book, without the burden of having to guess at what the author intends for us to find. Because after all, reading fiction--even active, thoughtful, intellectual reading of fiction--should not be a chore. While its length and rhetorical nature make The Name of the Rose seem like a chore on a superficial level, a closer examination reveals that it is instead a very enjoyable experience, as long as one keeps an open mind.