Thoughts: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Monks, murders, mysteries, manuscripts. How can you go wrong, really?

Not really spoilery, but if you want to read it, then you should just go and read it now.

I’d never read any Umberto Eco before so I didn’t know what to expect. From vague memories of other people’s comments and opinions on his work, I was expecting something dense and difficult and meta and way over my head. And that’s not to say The Name of the Rose wasn’t complex, twisty or satisfying – it was all of these things and more – but it wasn’t intimidating, and for that I am very grateful.

It took me a few pages to get into it, probably just because of the radical leap between 1950s Alabama and 1320s Italy, but once I was in, I was in heart and soul.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned before, but I love any book that pretends to be real. Do you know what I mean? With an editor’s note or introduction or something explaining how your humble author came upon this bundle of papers in an attic, or, in this case, came into possession of an ancient manuscript that was then lost, leaving only a later translation, the name of the abbeys and libraries and writers all mysteriously vanished from the record. I love it. I am happy to settle down into these conceits and illusions like fleecy blankets and go on an adventure.

I’m also weirdly fascinated by monasteries and abbeys, which goes back through C. J. Sansom’s first Shardlake book, Dissolution, all the way probably to Brian Jacques’s Redwall books and the abbey there, maybe even right back to my Catholic childhood and a quiet phase I had of wondering whether I should be a nun. Everyone goes through that phase, right?

Anyway, there’s something about the regimented lifestyle, the self-sufficiency, the sheer weight of years, that I find incredibly compelling. The way religious institutions are sort of timeless. An abbot or abbess can trace their predecessors back through the records, years and years and years. A monk sitting at his desk knows that other monks have sat there, felt as attached to it as he does, knew the view from the window as well as he does. It must be sort of humbling. I sit at my desk at work and though of course I’m not the first to sit there, it’s not like people have sat there translating for hundreds of years in a long, unbroken chain. Okay, fine, I’d probably be climbing the walls in a nunnery after about a week, but isn’t the idea cool?

Anyway, in The Name of The Rose, which contains, spoilers, approximately zero roses, we follow Adso, a young German Benedictine novice, on a diplomatic adventure with the proto-Sherlock Holmesian Franciscan William of Baskerville. Or rather, we are reading Eco’s Italian translation of a French translation of the original Latin memoirs of the elderly Adso, recalling the events of his youth. And the events of his youth contain dramatic murders, religious intrigue and philosophy, so we are in for a treat. It also contains untranslated Latin phrases, so be warned.

The monastery is peopled, as tradition dictates, by a colourful cast of secretive monks and presided over by an abbot whose love of jewels and wealth is just his way of expressing his love for God, okay? The jewels represent virtues! Those holy skulls were gifts, guys!

The book is dense with plots (murderous, political, personal, sexual) and I’m not sure I can describe all of it and do it justice, because my head’s still full of it. Eco remains perfectly faithful to… at least to what I believe would be authentic for such a document. Old man Adso isn’t a man “ahead of his time”, tirelessly curious, progressive (in any sense of the word). He’s open about his sins, and though he regrets un-monkly things about his sins, he’s aware that this is also wrong. He thinks women are generally terrible (if this is a dealbreaker for you, I understand. Some of the monks get pretty into how satanic women are!) and age has made him more conservative in his beliefs and desires to change or advance the world. Of course it has – at that time, he wouldn’t be alive to write his memoirs at such an advanced age if he hadn’t let the terrible things happen.

William of Baskerville’s feats of reason are fantastically well-done, building off ancient logicians, both bold and cautious. It’s more than a character voice or quirk, it’s a whole mindset. I got a similar vibe from Adso’s reactions to fantastical manuscript illustrations and church carvings. We take for granted how much we actually know.

Anyway, it looks like I’m not going to have much to say about this besides gushing about how much I enjoyed being in this world and watching William and Adso solve this mystery, so I’ll skip to the end. The last line of the book is an untranslated Latin phrase, that the internet helpfully tells me means: “the rose of old remains only in its name; we possess naked names”. We have only the symbols/names/ciphers/reminders of things that used to exist, and the book itself, a translation of a translation of a recorded memory of real events, embodies this… not succinctly, but well.

Already looking forward to rereading it and see what else I discover.

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