Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I've learned so much about myself since I started my second stint of actively reading for pleasure.  Back when the world was young and Methuselah owed me money--my high school days--I read everything. Michael Crichton and John Grisham were my favorite.  I read thrillers incessantly and I was probably averaging a book every two or three days.  Somewhere along the way I came across high or epic fantasy.  It wasn't until after college that started paying attention to what I was reading; what other people thought about what I was reading; and how the books I was reading were classified.  What I've learned is that if the word 'fiction' has to be modified, the book is generally not for me.

The Name of the Rose is undoubtedly 'historical fiction.'  Fiction, implies the story and all that elements that make that up.  Historical implies a very specific time frame and most likely a culture that the reader won't be immediately familiar with.  The problem, for me, when 'fiction' has to be modified is very tricky.  14th century Italy is the time, and monastic life is the culture.  I like a story to focus on the fiction and not whatever may be modifying the word.  So for me, quickly ingratiating me to the setting and indoctrinating me to the culture is essential.  I'm not sure Eco succeeded on the 'quickly' part but what he lacks in urgency he overcompensates in believability; and for me, I was completely okay with that trade.  

The story is a very standard murder mystery.  An extraordinarily wealthy monastery is turning up corpses in a fashion that seems to conjure the Apocalypse and coming of the AntiChrist.  The murders revolve around some very worldly secrets among the monks, a book that questions accepted truth and philosophy, an amazing library that is built more to conceal knowledge than share it, and a very base jealousy.

William of Baskerville, an ex-inquisitor, arrives just after the first murder and with his astonishing powers of reason and logic, and the thorough assistances of his companion Adso, begins to unravel the mystery.  The Holmes and Watson aspect of the novel couldn't be stronger.  

The 'historical' part of the novel is where I, and perhaps others, began to get a bit bogged down.  Eco writes in exhausting detail.  About everything…  There is life and vitality and color in his writing--it's never boring--but he goes on to an extent that far surpasses the need to make he believe in the time and place he writing.  It's no where near as bad as Tolkien, I never wanted to cut myself or cry blood while reading, but particularly in the begining where he can go on about the minutiae of monastic life at the expense of sharing even a hint as to why William is traveling to this monastery at all is a bit odd.  It's not rambling and it wasn't an info dump: it was too much of a good thing and my gut says Eco fought his editors who probably wanted to make some cuts.  At times, the maze that's supposed to be the library feels a bit more of a stifling quagmire than an arresting labyrinth.  It's all so (overly) well done that at times the book really does feel like a memoir of real and true events.    

The primary historical matters being discussed were Christ's earthly possession--should he have had any--and the church's stand point of poverty.  A saving grace was the novel's end when the fiction and history came together, and eventually went up in smoke.    

The book's title is perhaps the most interest point to mention when talking about the book and one can't divine any mean of the title from reading the novel.  It was only in reading the foreword, which I read, afterward, that the author shares some hints as to what the title means.  It is the 'name,' idea, or thought, of a thing that makes a thing special.  Not the object itself.  True possession isn't possible; 'You can't take it with you when you die.'  Like a rose, nothing endures for ever.  In terms of the book the 'rose' could be the monastery's library, human vanity, wealth, or a beautiful woman Adso once knew.  It's a rather dangerous, and a bit depressing, philosophy to live by.  

It's not an easy book to read, and a very difficult on to appreciate (I know I missed a lot).  It's not for everyone, but on every level I did think it was an extraordinary book.   

Check out Maria's take on the same book.  

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