The Name of the Rose

by JDP

Pairing big ideas with a barnburner of a plot, this book is typically billed as a seriously intellectualized version of The Da Vinci Code; if you like your murder mysteries set in 1300s monastic Italy and infused with critical discussions of Catholic doctrine (which, after the fact, it seems that I kind of do), then you’ll no doubt enjoy The Name of the Rose.

Umberto Eco / Italian / 1980 / 560 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

This novel is omnibus. Heretics burn, monks sermonize, politics are palavered, the saints are eulogized, history and philosophy are trotted out in between the discovery of corpses, there are visions both dreamt and hallucinated, arguments both casual and deadly, and books both banned and holy. This is a novel written by a scholar who is unafraid to truck in the mundane and the simple; a renounced Catholic who brings a steadily critical eye to bear on church dogma; a semiotician whose symbolic proclivities range from the crass to the gorgeous. The narration is, at times, forcefully propelled and speckled with witty dialogue; at other points, the prose wanders off into overly long and self-indulgent theological tracts. And, oh, the discussions about old books! At nearly every conversational turn, the characters rattle off a litany of infamous old texts and literary allusions. Eco weaves deep contexts and subtexts in with more standard narrative techniques and the effect is generally well-executed.

While not a particularly stellar prose stylist (nor, for that matter, the most accommodative writer in town), I still give Eco high marks for his book: this is an intellectual and serious work that succeeds in what I might call the “administration” of the various disparate elements contained in its pages. To compare it with its most immediate competitor, I’d say that it comes off as a somewhat more successful effort than My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. Also, to reach a bit further, I’d say that it occasionally bears striking similarities to The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in its management of philosophies, dialogue, and atmosphere. Mann wrote a better book than Eco, but I’d heartily recommend both novels to many of my literary friends.

The plot of Rose is a thing to behold. The Catholic church in the 1300s was rife with infighting between its various priestly sects — the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Benedictines, etc. While today these groups persist side-by-side in relative harmony, such pluralism was not exactly among the hallmarks of Catholicism in the 1300s. Debates on dogma (such as interpreting the gospels, figuring out what Jesus intended when he said this or that obscure phrase) were of high consequence: the losers were typically pilloried, tortured, burned at the stake, or worse. To be on the wrong side of the papal stance on a particular issue (however well-intentioned) was to be branded a heretic and excommunicated. These debates didn’t get any easier to navigate when realpolitik bled into the theological. Oftentimes kings would play sects of priests off against the pope as a means of jockeying for more power over the poor, religious hordes under their purview. In this shifting, capricious landscape, the beliefs that could damn a person on Tuesday may well be his saving grace on Thursday … that is, if he hadn’t yet been burned alive.

Eco skewers this historical ridiculousness with an inventive plot. The pope is looking to rectify his beliefs with those of a wayward priestly sect and, in order to do this, proposes a summit to hear out both sides of the argument before eventually settling on a position (ostensibly, at least) upon which everyone can agree. The priests, however, don’t want to meet the pope on his home turf; they suspect foul play and aren’t eager to be decried as heretics. To this end, then, a neutral meeting place is chosen: a monastery far off in the countryside where the monks have no personal stake in the doctrinal debate. The man who  will oversee the event is named William, a powerful British monk who is famous for his even temperament, analytical mind, and humorous repartee. The book opens with William’s arrival at the monastery a few days before the summit is set to begin. He is immediately confronted with the first of what ends up being a series of murders within the monastery’s walls. His task is to identify the murderer and set the monastery to rights before the two delegations arrive.

The book is as much about ideas as it is an historical whodunit. The chief doctrinal argument that must be settled is whether or not priests (and, by extension, the entire Catholic hierarchy) should pursue lives of poverty (because Jesus was poor) or material wealth (to bring greater glory to God’s institutions on earth). Eco delves impressively deep into Catholic theology and biblical interpretation to provide for the reader both sides of this argument. As the text plays out, it becomes rather clear, however, which stance is the more justifiable in Eco’s mind. Other peripheral questions are also raised, debated, and tentatively resolved. What challenges does rigorously analytical philosophy pose to God’s grace? Did Jesus laugh and should religious adherents indulge in laughter from time to time? What can European Christians learn from the scholarship of African and Middle Eastern Muslims? What is the purpose of a library as a private, cloistered amalgamation of knowledge?

I tend to struggle with murder mysteries, so I was glad when Rose turned out to adhere only very loosely to that genre. The fun of reading the novel comes in linking the physical life-and-death struggles to the metaphysical and theological struggles. Eco’s point is well-taken and stands as true today as it did in the 1300s: ideas, no matter how abstract, govern our world in ways as tangible as the physical laws of nature.

Rating: 7 / 10

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