Monday, August 21, 2006


The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Imagine if you can a story about Sherlock Holmes, only he is not a 19th century English gentleman but a 14th century English monk. This Sherlock’s Watson is a young novice monk of a different order from Germany. At this point we have the beginnings of the backdrop for The Name of the Rose – a string of mysterious murders in a remote abbey in the mountains of Italy.

While Brother William of Baskerville clearly shows parallels to Sherlock Holmes, he is much more than an intelligent monk with the past of an inquisitor. William plays a key role in the building 14th century conflict between the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope, now using Avignon as his center of power.

We begin with Brother William and his novice assistant, Adso, arriving at the unnamed abbey. William is representative of the Holy Roman Emperor at a neutral meeting between representatives of the Pope and the Minorities as the Minorities battle for official recognition in the church. The mysterious death of a young monk plagues the abbey, and the Abbot pleads for William’s aid in solving this death before the arrival of the Pope’s envoy, which could threaten his authority in his abbey. More deaths occur and the heart of the mystery is the greatest library in Christendom; a labyrinth whose secrets are known only to the librarian, his assistant, and the abbot.

We see this murder mystery and tale of division in the medieval Catholic Church through the eyes of the young novice, Adso. He struggles in circumstances beyond his modest self, with temptations, and with the horrors of the medieval church.

The Name of the Rose is a classic mystery wrapped in the intrigue of the Catholic Church. Eco writes with an almost academic prose that is at once beautiful and powerful, but not easy. The book takes time to read; time that is rewarded.

I know no Latin and very little of the history of the Catholic Church, and I still enjoyed this book. However, I am left with the impression that I could have appreciated the book much more if I had known something of those. The mystery still remains, the fascinating library is nothing short of wondrous, and the tragic end is still painful, but I’m still left with the impression that I missed something.

The Name of the Rose is a great book, but not an easy book. I can easily recommend it highly, but with the caveat that it is not for everyone. On my 10-point rating scale, The Name of the Rose rates a 7.5.

For whatever reason, the below quote feels like it captures what I was left with at the end of the book better than my own words can, so I choose to end the review with it.

And it is a hard thing for this old monk to know whether the letter he has written contains some hidden meaning, or more than one, or many, or none at all.

3 comments:

Ser Barry said...

I was of much the same opinion as you however my lack of comprehension cast more of a shadow on my reading experience. I felt like I missed so much of what was going on that the book actually became an uncomfortable read. Great quote, sums it up nicely.

Neth said...

yeah, I enjoyed the book, but I feel that I could have enjoyed it much more - of course, I'm not going to go out and learn a dead language to achieve that. I've got several other Eco books around on The Stack, hopefully they don't all leave me this feeling.

Evg said...

Being Italian like Eco and having a good background either in latin and Europe history, I had the possibility to fully appreciate this book. 9/10 for me, without a doubt ;)

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