The Name of the Rose
by Umberto Eco
When an Italian professor of philosophy specializing in the (to most of us) obscure discipline of semiotics writes a mystery, it’s safe to bet it won’t be like any other mystery you’ve ever read. For anybody who hasn’t read The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s 1980 homage to Sherlock Holmes, Jorge Luis Borges, and libraries -- among many other themes -- I’ll provide a brief plot summary. It doesn’t give away one iota of the real fun of this medieval mystery.
Fourteenth-century English monk William of Baskerville arrives at an Italian abbey intending to deliver a message to the abbot from one of the era’s major political players. Instead, after suitably mystifying the monks with the acuteness of his deductions in the matter of a strayed horse, he finds himself plunged into a deeper mystery.
A young monk has plunged to his death from the high window of the abbey’s library -- a library the dead man should not have able to enter in the first place, and one as hard to escape from as the universe we live in. A library whose guardian, the old, dour and blind monk, Jorge of Burgos, seems incapable of overpowering a younger and stronger man. More strange deaths follow.
The possibility of suicides is bad enough, but the abbot, no slouch at deduction himself, suspects murder. Can William solve the mystery? You bet your deerstalker -- make that habit -- he can. But the real truth is worse even than the abbot feared.
Along the way there’s a love story, arson, an inquisition, and a host of in-jokes. How many references to Sherlock Holmes can you spot? How many to the Argentinean savant Borges? (Who also lost his sight.)
And then there’s the evocative title, although I searched in vain for references to roses when first reading the book. It was the last on a list of possible titles Eco presented to some friends. (His first choice was Delitti all’ abbazia -- Murders at the Abbey (“a clear
quotation of Murder at the Vicarage,”) he later wrote, no doubt chuckling all the while.
In fact, as he stated in On Literature, a collection of essays, “One could carry out a psychoanalysis of influences. . . (including) the historical novels of Dmitri Merezkovskij, and I had to admit that I had read them when I was twelve even though I never thought of them while I was writing the novel.”
Still, for most of us, the biggest lure is that of total immersion in another place and time.
As Eco notes, “I take a reader from Texas, who has never seen Europe, into a medieval abbey . . . and make him feel at ease.”
From this reader from Texas, that’s saying something.
(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics continues a month of historical fiction with another total immersion sage, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The only mystery there -- will Scarlett O’Hara ever figure out what she really wants?)