Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says, but what it means…
This took me longer to get through than I had expected. There is a murder mystery; William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk from Britain arrives at an abbey in early 14th century Italy, where a strange death has occurred, as he begins his investigation more deaths add to the toll. The monk’s name is an homage to Sherlock Holmes, and his methods are similar. Aside from the murder mystery there is a lot of information about papal decrees, obscure Fourteenth Century religious controversies and the conflict between the Pope in Avignon and the Emperor in Rome. Umberto Eco knows his stuff he was a professor of medieval studies at Bologna University but some of the detail is a little too much. The book weighs in at over 500 pages and there is a lengthy postscript where the author talks about the book. Eco had originally wanted to call it “Adso of Melk” after William’s novice assistant and the narrating voice of the story, but he tells us in Italy books are rarely named after a person. He came on the title by chance, the rose is a symbolic figure, rich in meaning, Eco said “A title must muddle a reader’s ideas not regiment them.”
I watched the film (released in 1986) decades ago with Sean Connery as William and a very young Christian Slater as Adso. There is much in the book that didn’t make it into the film, like Adso’s lengthy dream sequence, where he imagines many of the biblical characters from Adam and Noah to Paul and Peter, entwined with the sinister events in the monastery.
Eco began with a seminal idea, he felt like poisoning a monk and ended with a medieval murder mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. The fashion for medieval murder mysteries could have been initiated by this or by the Cadfael series by Edith Pargeter, which appeared around the same time. He blazes a semiotic trail for Dan Brown to follow in the DaVinci Code.
There is the fascination of a lost manuscript – in this case the missing volume of Aristotle’s Poetics, a book about laughter, there is much debate about whether Christ laughed. There is a fiendishly labyrinthine library, which William and Adso are barred from entering and they take a long time to figure out its secrets.
It‘s funny, it’s smart, it’s insightful, it’s thrilling and it’s very nerdy. It is a treat for bibliophiles: “We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
My rating 4 out of 5