Friday 13 May 2016

Book Review: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Book Review: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, who passed away earlier this year, wrote a number of notable works, but his lasting fame in the English-speaking world rests on Il Nome Della Rosa, translated by William Weaver and made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

I have seen the movie in bits and pieces, and intend to see it properly soon, but had taken on the novel during my travels in North India, finishing the book on the day I spent at Macleodgunj, visiting the Tibetan Buddhist monastery there.

The book begins in what was the present time when it was written, viz. the late seventies, with the narrator claiming to find a lost manuscript dictated by ‘Adso of Melk’, a fourteenth-century Benedictine monk. The rest of the book is a narration of Adso in the first person.

Adso is the younger son of a wealthy Italian, a young ‘novice’ under the guidance of a monk named William of Baskerville, from Northern England (a hat-tip to Conan Doyle) and that they are on a journey to get away from the military strife in Melk at the time, as well as on a mission that is made clear to us later on.

As they approach the monastery where the bulk of the action takes place, Brother William shows his skills of deduction by finding the Abbot’s missing horse. After reaching there, they are informed of the recent mysterious death of a young novice, Adelmo and the Abbot requests Brother William, as a former Inquisitor, to investigate it. This is side-by-side with the real purpose of the visit, which is to be a part of negotiations between a team of monks led by Michael of Cesna and a delegation from the Pope, led by the terrible Bernardo Gui, an Inquisitor whose very name strikes terror in the hearts of those who hear it.

Always cooler than you, even as a 14th century monk
As the days pass, more and more monks are killed, and the ideological disputes grow more and more intense. The Franciscans and Minorites are factions who believe that virtue lies in poverty, since the Christ lived in poverty himself, a position that the Vatican seems to consider dangerous to their own authority, given the tremendous wealth of the Church at the time. Another dispute arises over the nature and importance of humour, with one faction claiming that as the Bible does not record Christ ever having smiled or laughed, ‘Comedy’ is a sinful art and practice. Even the common habit of those who illustrated books (this was before the printing press came into being, so all books were hand-written and illustrated, a skill that was virtually the monopoly of monasteries) to insert absurd drawings in the margins to arouse the interest of the readers is considered sinful.

The bulk of the investigation centres around the monastery’s library, a labyrinthine structure where entry is forbidden but which houses a book so dangerous that it seems to be the key to the killings. As they find a secret entrance and exit, Adso and William find answers that only lead to more questions. On one of their nocturnal expeditions, Adso encounters a gorgeous peasant girl from the neighbouring village, and his reaction to her as well as Brother William’s later explanation of the nature of sexual attraction is another important part of the doctrinal differences that must have existed at the time, as well as the tragic underpinning of the suffering of the common folk in the ideological battles of the ‘great’ and ‘pure’ men of the Church.

As the body count piles up, and the attempts of Adso and William to solve the mystery are met with clues that lead nowhere, the papal delegation arrives and the action accelerates to a shocking and ultimately, bitter end. For all their cleverness and investigative success, William and Adso’s triumph is ultimately a failure, and they soon separate, never to meet again.

We are left with Adso’s final reflections on that episode in his life, and the beautiful, poignant last line:

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
(Oh beautiful rose of the past, now disappeared, we hold only your name)

Valentina Vargas as 'the girl'.
The Name of the Rose gives us an abundance of characters, with often-complicated names, but each acquires a personality and leaves an impression. William and Adso are a sort of medieval Holmes and Watson, but the Chief of the Monastery, Abo, a noble’s bastard elevated beyond his capabilities, Severinus a herbalist who shares William’s intellectual curiosity, Malachi the librarian, a stooge who believes in denying knowledge to seekers, Berengar his assistant, who abuses his position to obtain favours from those who want access to books, Jorge the elderly, blind monk who keeps preaching about the oncoming Apocalypse, even Salvatore the hideous former criminal who acts as a procurer of sexual favours from the village girls for corrupt monks, are all characters who should remain with the reader for a long time.

The little things
The Name of the Rose is not an easy book to read. Peppered with biblical references, stories from the medieval history of the pre-Luther Church and in the last days of the Eastern Roman Empire, it is a treasure-trove of information and insight into the life of the era. At the same time, the generous use of Latin phrases without translation can be jarring, as well as the throwbacks and detailing of doctrinal differences between factions of the Church, which may not be of the same interest to all readers.

For a certain type of reader, The Name of the Rose would be very rewarding indeed. If you love mystery with a dash of history, and can open-mindedly look at the motivations and flaws of people of the times then you ought to enjoy this novel. While I speak from the translation, it appears that Eco’s use of language is deft and cheeky, the way adjectives are used is the work of a master, and when Adso (as narrator) describes the peasant girl entirely with references to Biblical and religious monuments – and still manages to convey his deep physical arousal – you know you are in the hands of someone who knows what words are and what they can do.

Eco’s postscript gives a hint as to the meaning of the title through this poem by seventeenth-century Mexican poet, Juana Ines De la Cruz

Red rose growing in the meadow,
you vaunt yourself bravely
bathed in crimson and carmine:
a rich and fragrant show.
But no: Being fair,
You will be unhappy soon

But does he mean the forbidden book, now lost forever? The innocence of his own youth? Or the beautiful peasant girl, his rose, whose name he never knew? That is for the reader to guess, if he picks up the book.

Available here


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