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The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

On any list of unlikely bestsellers from the last century, The Name of the
must hold a special place of distinction.  Nothing is rarer than for a
novel translated from Italian to reach the top of the
New York Times
bestseller list—unless it is, of course, a megahit
book written by an academic whose best known
previous work was
A Theory of Semiotics.  And
did I mention that the plot revolves around
medieval theology?

Even after it was translated into English (and
numerous other languages),
The Name of the
still had intimidating chunks of Latin on
almost every page, and a smattering of other
defunct languages scattered hither and thither.  
I took four years of high school Latin, yet I still
would have been lost while reading this book if
I hadn't had a copy of
The Key to ‘The Name
of the Rose’  (by Haft, White & White) by my
side.   Yet despite these obstacles, small and large, this arcane novel sold a
reported fifty million copies, which puts it in the league of Harry Potter, and
ahead of
Gone With the Wind, Roget’s Thesaurus and To Kill a

But not all is foreboding and recondite in
The Name of the Rose.  The book
also follows the familiar genre patterns of the mystery—think of it as a cross
between Agatha Christie's
And Then There Were None and Aquinas’s
Summa Theologica.  Monks are dying under curious circumstances, and the
detective (okay, he’s just a monk too, but a very smart one) William of
Baskerville is asked by the abbot to get to get to the bottom of it.  
Baskerville is assisted by Adso of Melk, who is sort of a tonsured Dr.
Watson. In fact, I kept waiting for William to interject: "Eleemosynary, my
dear novice Adso."

In the background, Eco constructs a labyrinth of supporting plots (including
one involving a labyrinth).  William has arrived at the Abbey as a
representative of Emperor Louis IV in order to participate in negotiations
also involving emissaries from the Pope, who is in heated conflict with the
Emperor, and the Franciscan order, then caught in the crossfire between
secular and ecclesiastical agendas.  This part of the story draws the reader
into further subplots involving heretical and rebellious church movements,
and the various inquisitions and repressive actions employed in combating
them.  And all these elements draw in aspects of theology, philosophy and
history, that constantly linger in the background of
The Name of the Rose,
and sometimes dominate the foreground as well.

This may sound dry and academic, but Eco builds his polemics around
forceful personalities.  Like any good mystery writer, he knows that it is
essential to populate his story with many likely suspects, a plethora of
possible murderers.  Here we encounter Salvatore, the secretive and
gluttonous monk who speaks in a strange composite jargon—made up of
bits and pieces of contemporary and ancient languages—and who is
disturbingly vague when asked about certain particulars in his past.   
Malachi, the librarian, also arouses our suspicions:  he never allows anyone
into the third floor of the Aedificum, the fortress where the abbey’s rare
collection of manuscripts and books are held, yet mysterious lights can be
seen through the windows at night.  Severinus the doctor and herbalist
might also be a murderer—he knows an uncanny amount about rare
poisons.   Jorge of Brugos, the blind man, seems to know even darker
secrets and shows up quietly and stealthily at the least expected moments.  
Even Abo the Abbot is not above reproach, and comes across as far more
concerned with worldly riches and power than is befitting for a Benedictine

But the most compelling character is our detective William of Baskerville.  
Have you encountered mysteries where the private investigator was once a
policeman, but left the force after encountering too much corruption?  Well,
the same is true of William, except the organization he left behind wasn't the
L.A.P.D, but the Inquisition.  (Fill in your own wisecrack here.)   He didn't like
modus operandi, and now operates as a free agent, but—unlike your
typical private eye—he has the benefit of an Oxford education, and
mentoring by Roger Bacon and William of Ockham, whose approach to
natural philosophy proves to be a good medieval substitute for a degree in

Much has changed in the world since the late Middle Ages, but there are
some constants.  The seven deadly sins are still around, and if you have
any doubts over how deadly they might be,
The Name of the Rose will settle
the argument.  Eco also adds a convincing love story, with just the right
dose of concupiscence for the modern reader—not easy for a story set in a
monastery, but our author is a master of plotting, so such obstacles are
deftly overcome.  All in all,
The Name of the Rose combines the best
elements of a historical romance, a thriller, and a novel of ideas.  

Yet our author would not be Umberto Eco, if the book wasn't full of
intertextual, intratextual, and countertextual twists.   For Eco, another turn of
the screw means another book within a book, and Eco gives us several
additional turns here.  Not only does the story involve texts, as well as texts
that relate to other texts;  not only do manuscripts figure as possible clues,
motives and weapons in
The Name of the Rose; but even the narrative itself
is reportedly drawn from a book the author found in 1968 that contained a
14th century text from a Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk.   I can’t say much
more without giving away the plot, but I will tell you that, after reading
Name of the Rose
, you won’t ever again look at the library as just a clean,
well-lighted place for books.