The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
What the Back of the Book Has to Say:
"Imagine a medieval castle run by the Benedictines, with cellarists, herbalists, gardeners, young novices. One after the other half a dozen monks are found murdered in the most bizarre of ways. A learned Franciscan who is sent to solve the mystery finds himself involved in the frightening events ... a sleuth's pursuit of the truth behind the mystery also involes the pursuit of meaning - in words, symbols, ideas, every conceivable sign the visible universe contains ... Umberto Eco has written a novel - his first - and it has become a literary event."
-New York Times Book Review
Why I Picked It Up:
I had read some of Eco's theory papers last year and had grown to like him. Surely his fiction would be easier to read, though?
What I Think:
The reason I picked up this book has become some sort of strange paradox in my mind. My senior year of college I took English 170 (Problems in Literary Theory), perhaps the hardest class I have ever taken in my life, and my professor had centered the class on Medieval literature. That is how I met dear Mr. Eco. The very first theory paper we read was one of his and although my classmates got rather annoyed with it very quickly, I actually really enjoyed it and proceeded to write my first paper for that class based on his theory's differences to another theorist's ("Thinking Outside the Box: The Rift between Eco and Dinshaw"). I did rather well on that paper and thus, a love for Umberto was born. True story: I even dressed as him for our Halloween class for extra credit. Because that is how cool English majors at my college were. And that's not sarcasm; we actually really enjoyed ourselves.
So, when I was perusing the shelves one day, my eyes alighted on the bright gold name of Umberto Eco. After reading the back, I could only think "Eco? Monk murder mystery? Sounds amazing!" and happily checked it out.
At this point, I think I should mention what it was that annoyed all of my classmates so much in Eco's theory paper. One flaw that Eco indeed has is that he thinks (and rightly so) that he's smarter than everyone. He knows everything about everything, whether it be religious, theoretical, philosophic. Seriously, just look at his Wikipedia and see how many different types of things he's done in his life. This man is a genius and he knows it. As such, he enjoys throwing in references and information without explaining anything. Because, if you don't understand the reference, than you really shouldn't be reading his work in the first place.
That was really rather apparent in Rose. There were so many things going on at any given time but, at the same, really nothing much happened. The basic plot is of a young novice monk, Adso, travelling with his mentor, William of Baskerville. They are sent to a monastery that is very soon to be host to an important religious debate in order to investigate a series of murders, as William is kind of the church's top detective, so to speak. They meet all different personalities of monks and others around monastery as the murders continue, taking one man of faith after the other without so much as a clue as to what is going on.
Now, that all sounds very interesting, in my opinion. The problem is that Eco knows so much about all of the medieval history that this story is so grounded in that he goes off on tangents about major historical events and issues of the time, the kind of throwaway facts that are not typical stored information in a normal reader's head. Whole paragraphs might be written in Greek or Latin. There are lots of references to the Great Schism and other various fourteenth century Catholic historical events. If you don't know the littlest about these, then you're kind of screwed.
The plot itself is rather interesting. I'm a big fan of mysteries and the way he weaves the tale of murder, revenge and scholarship is very fascinating. There are even some good action sequences, something I'm not usually a huge fan of. Adso, the novice who is our narrator for this story, is a bit of a wet blanket (even if he does have a crisis of sexuality at one point) but William is a great, dynamic character who really pulls the story forward.
And thus, we return to why I feel reading this story was a paradox. I wouldn't have understood probably 80% of this novel had I not taken English 170. However, I probably wouldn't have picked it up in the first place if I hadn't met Eco originally in that class. It's a strange, self-sustaining paradox. All in all, I'm happy I read it and enjoyed the plot itself. It just tends to get bogged down in pages and pages of philosophy and extraneous details that can be hard to muddle through.
On a side note, apparently it was made into a movie staring Sean Connery at some point. I have not seen the movie, but if they took out a lot of the deep philosophy and historical details, it could be pretty exciting. Plus, you know, it's Sean Connery...