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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

13 October 2007

Slipping a bit of historical literature into the book review list today.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose is, to put it in crudest terms, a murder mystery. The story begins with the investigation into the death of a Benedictine monk, and the corpses of more of his brethern begin to pile up over the course of the novel in a way that would shock those who are used to a more genteel kind of murder mystery. (From my extensive reading of the more formulaic examples of the genre, any more than three corpses tends to strain the story; most authors shy away from mass bloodshed and would prefer to confine themselves to one or two victims.) But The Name of the Rose is more than just a simple murder mystery — it is practically a history lesson in the schisms of the mediaeval Church, a discourse on the nature of heresy and the purpose of the clergy, and a fictional but still factual rendering of the bloody conflict between temporal and spiritual power in Europe in the early 14th century. Furthermore, the story takes place in an abbey that is essentially a massive library, a veritable temple of books and a home to those who jealously guard knowledge like dragons on a mountain of gold. Everyone in the story is a little bit crazy over books, some more so than others, and the books play their own part in the drama. Since I very much enjoy books, history, and murder mysteries, I think it safe to say that this book had my full attention from the start.

The tale is told by a aged Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk, as a recollection of past events — in the story, he is a young man barely into the cloister, serving as an apprentice and as the Dr Watson to the Sherlock Holmes-like figure of English Franciscan monk William of Baskerville. As the story progress, William uses his skills of deduction and logical reasoning to investigate a number of mysterious goings-on at the abbey, many of which appear to be connected to the knowledge that is hidden in the innermost depths of the abbey’s labyrinthine library. And as the body count increases at a pace that both startled and intrigued this reader, William begins to learn that someone has (or believes they have) a very good reason for ensuring that the secrets concealed in the library remain secret…for there are those who wholeheartedly believe that death is not too small a price to pay to ensure that God is not mocked.

The Name of the Rose is a small masterpiece of literary complexity, because there are so many plot points and twists and turns to follow (both for the characters and for the reader) that at times it seems as if the story will never end — and that is by no means a bad thing. Having had this book recommended to me by many people, I picked up a copy in anticipation of a long stretch of time when I could read uninterrupted. I’m very glad I did, because if I had had to keep stopping and starting it and trying to pick up where I’d left off, I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as I did. It demands a lot of concentration and attention, but the story is well-worth the effort put into reading it. I certainly learned a lot from reading it, and I have a feeling that it will take at least another two or three full re-reads before I can fully appreciate all of the work that Eco put into it. As far as murder mysteries go, The Name of the Rose stands well apart from the vast majority of its kind.

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3 comments

  1. […] occasional observations of a contemporary historian, editor, writer, and bibliophile. « The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco October 14th, 2007 I wasn’t planning to […]


  2. […] of essays and other short pieces by Umberto Eco, Italian professor of semiotics and author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s […]


  3. […] homes. Even examples of great fictional libraries, such as the labyrinthine abbey library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, have a part in this narrative. But along with the stories of libraries come stories of the […]



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