Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fiction: The Name of the Rose

Translated by William Weaver

1. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, ISBN 0-15-144647-4; Hardcover, $35.00.
2. Harcourt Brace: Harvest in Translation, 1984, ISBN 0-15-600131-4; Trade paperback $15.00. Includes Postscript to The Name of the Rose.
3. Folio Society, 2001, Hardcover, £27.50.

Originally published in 1980 as Il nome della rosa, Eco’s first novel has rapidly assumed the status of a modern classic. Set in a northern Italian abbey in the year 1327, The Name of the Rose is an engaging and unusually dense mystery, harmoniously combining many different elements into one seamless whole. The book is like a marvelous play, where philosophical discussion, theological debate, and scientific discourse interact brilliantly on the stage of historical fiction; a drama where a complex plot masked as a detective story pulls the reader into surprisingly dynamic relationships with a cast of metaphysical characters.
There are many opinions of this book, which is both rare and wonderful for a work basically so young. Its fanbase is very large, and includes mystery buffs, classical lit professors, postmodern fiction enthusiasts, science fiction and fantasy fans, mathematicians and linguists – rarely does one encounter a contemporary work with a readership so diverse. Some know it only from the film version with Sean Connery and Christian Slater; a decent movie, but as a faithful rendition of the novel, it is not without serious flaws. Some consider it an historical mystery, a literary whodunit touching on everything from God to toxicology, and to others it plays like a supernatural novel of the occult, filled with arcane references and sinister monks brooding in the shadow of the Apocalypse. To some it represents a modern refutation of the Medieval world-view, a semiological reply to the question of Universal Natures in the form of a Roman a clef. And then again, more than a few have tossed the book into the corner, discouraged by its clutter and unwilling to plow through the infamous “Adso admires the door” chapter.
So what exactly is all this about?
The novel opens with a few words from the “author,” if I may put that word into quotations; for Eco uses the time-honored literary device of disavowing authorship, claiming instead to have uncovered the manuscript of a 14th Century monk named Adso of Melk. After a few mandatory notes from Eco, the reader is immediately plunged into the mind of this aging monk, who has a story to tell about a certain memorable week from his youth....
Although related by Adso, the story centers around Adso’s mentor, an English Franciscan named William of Baskerville. A disciple of Aristotle and Roger Bacon, William is a man whose religious convictions dwell in coexistence with his love of philosophy and his penchant for investigative science. These “modern” views, which largely define his character and ensure the reader’s sympathy, are about to be thrown into stark relief against the darkest facets of the medieval mind set. The plot begins when William and his enthusiastic pupil are sent to a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy. This abbey has been chosen to host an important but controversial theological meeting, and it is William’s assignment to lay the groundwork for a smooth transaction. But prior to beginning his investigation, a gruesome murder occurs, shocking the complacent monks and intriguing the ever-curious William. As he investigates the circumstances of the murder, he and Adso set forth on a journey through a convoluted labyrinth of intrigue, where every twist brings them in contact with the superstitions, beliefs, and political machinations that rule the brothers of this strange abbey. As the story unfolds against a background of escalating violence and increasing hysteria, William and Adso find themselves pulled into a widening vortex of tension that soon threatens to unwind the very fabric of their social universe. At the eye of the storm is a secret book hidden away like a deformed child in the attic, a semi-mythical work by Aristotle which heretically declares laughter as the only escape from the doctrine of Universal Truth....
Not only is the story a fascinating one, but the book is amazingly well written, and reads more like a tour-de-force from a master novelist than the fictional debut of a semiotics professor. Eco doesn’t merely describe the fourteenth century, he thrusts the reader into its heart, soul, and bowels, his prose resurrecting the medieval world around the reader’s dazzled senses. Like the labyrinthine library at the heart of the story, his prose reflects the convolutions of the age with all its conflicting worlds of thought. At times dense and dark, at other times exploding with illumination, the narrative captures the tensions and glories of an age posed on the brink of discovery, yet desperately clinging to the past. Every nuance and detail is lovingly rendered, from the stinking muck of a stable to the glorious illuminations of a manuscript, from the apocalyptic fervor of the willfully ignorant to the intellectual wonder invoked by a pair of spectacles. The characters are beautifully drawn, many slyly referring to personalities from literature, such as Jorge of Burgos, the irascible blind librarian, a tweak of the nose to Jorge Luis Borges. Bernardo Guidoni, the Inquisitor whose visit looms over the abbey like a coming plague, is drawn from history, as is the sad heretic Ubertino of Casale. Of course, the most remarkable character is William of Baskerville. Shining through the pages of the book like a beacon of clarity, banishing the darkness of ignorance with the light of reason, Brother William is an irresistible and unforgettable protagonist, possessed with Eco’s modern sensibilities and given a name that fairly twinkles with humor, sparkles of light flashed from Sherloccam’s razor wit.
This fondness for puns and allusion is not restricted to the cast of characters. The Name of the Rose is filled with puzzles, arcane references, and literary gamesmanship, from the realization of imaginary books to the witty mechanisms of the library’s lethal maze. Even its title is an enigma of sorts, and the source of speculation for several essays, including a “Postscript” by Eco himself (included in the Harvest paperback edition). The sense of play in The Name of the Rose is grounded by a deeper level of humor, a spiritual goodwill shielded from banality by a protective layer of irony. Although the novel depicts many tragedies and profound lapses of reason, it is neither unrelentingly bleak nor mired in existential despair. William – and, one senses, Eco – has a genuine compassion for his fellow man, and even when his anger flares or his patience fails, he can still embrace life with good humor, wry understanding, and a hard-won sense of balance.
A detective story and then some; there are as many valid ways to read this work as there are readers. A modern answer to the Middle Ages, a refutation of Universals and Absolutes, a celebration of the birth of the experimental method, a dialogue between personified ideals – all are valid frames of reference, and all have something to teach us about our own modern world. Eco is here a conjuror crossing time and space, using the long ladle of Aristotelian tradition to churn up the Middle Ages in his postmodern cauldron; and as the abbey teeters towards both revelation and destruction, we are invited inside to taste the heady brew.