On the surface, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose looks like Sherlock Holmes in a 14th-century Italian abbey. There’s a murder mystery; Adso, a young Austrian monk at the time of the story’s events, serves as a Watson-like, first-person narrator; and William, a former inquisitor, plays the part of an observant English detective. Eco even nods at this relationship by having William hail from Baskerville (the site of Holmes’ most famous case).
But The Name of the Rose is far more than a whodunit—much of the book is an examination of how knowledge is obtained and certified as truth.
This thematic exploration begins before the story starts. In his foreword, Eco relates the (fictional) tale of how he came upon The Name of the Rose by accident and discovered that it was a secondhand translation of Adso’s original recollection, which our narrator wrote many decades after the real happenings transpired.
From the outset, then, Eco calls into question the veracity of what we’re about to experience.
Soon after the story proper gets underway—with the mysterious death of a monk, causing the abbot to summon William and his deductive powers—Adso learns that an ecclesiastic meeting will take place at the abbey in a few days, with the purpose of determining whether one order’s preference for monastic poverty should be considered doctrine or heresy. The consequences of such decisions are made plain as Adso hears about and recalls instances when followers of “false” creeds were tortured and burned at the stake. He also participates in debates over philosophy and Christian principles, like whether laughter is divine, and if Jesus engaged in it.
In contrast, William’s inquiry into what becomes a string of grisly deaths deals with questions more definitively answered. How did the first monk die? If someone killed him, why? What about the second death? Is there a connection? And so on.
Yet here, too, Eco injects uncertainty, showing that in detective work—and religion, and life in general—one can be right for the wrong reasons, and vice versa. “I understood,” Adso writes at one point, “that, when he didn’t have an answer, William proposed many to himself, very different from one another… [H]e amused himself by imagining how many possibilities were possible.”
The space Eco devotes to these matters occasionally slows the pace of the story. So do his often-lengthy descriptions, like when Adso ponders an ornate door for almost an entire chapter; I found the beginning of the novel tough going, charming but dense. (In his afterword, Eco says—rather snobbishly—that this was intentional: “[T]hose first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him.”)
But the payoff was worth the effort. I enjoyed both the unraveling of the mystery and the thought exercises it provoked, even if I didn’t interpret The Name of the Rose’s message exactly as Eco intended.
And indeed, I think that’s his point.
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