I was prompted to write this not in the first place by a book I am reading, but by the first episode of a new TV Drama series. I watched this on BBC Two last Friday night and I was hurled back in time 35 years to my first reading of the book itself. I have to say that the series looks as if it may remain even more faithful to the book that the wonderful 1986 movie version with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. Umberto Eco‘s classic medieval murder mystery has remained ever since that first reading, one of my all time favourite novels. The book Il nome della rosa was written in 1980 and translated into English in 1983 by William Weaver and The Name of The Rose was released in paperback in 1984. My much loved copy is shown here.
The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, “The Name of the Rose” is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.
Such was the blurb but it hardly scratches the surface of Eco’s debut novel. The writer was a professor of semiotics so it should not be any great surprise that the book is sometimes wordy, but always intelligent and a very clever, partial fictionalization, full of linguistic ambiguity. The story works on a great many levels according to the interest of the reader, in the way that it creates a world enriched by several layers of meaning. What do I mean by that? Well let’s take a look at the name of the central character William of Baskerville. His style of deduction in solving the murders is very similar to that of Sherlock Holmes and as detectives they both work according to the principle of Ockham’s Razor which is the idea that one should always accept as most likely the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts. William of Ockham lived during the time in which the novel is set. Right at the beginning of the novel, young Adso‘s description of his master in the beginning of the book resembles, almost word for word, Dr. Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes when he first makes his acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet. So we may take William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and deduce William of Baskerville.
Some of the other characters in the story are true historical figures e.g. Bernard Gui, Ubertino of Casale and the Minorite Michael of Cesena, although Eco’s characterization of them is not always historically accurate.
Brother William’s young apprentice, Adso of Melk, is the narrator of this book so his name does not escape complex origins either. Adso is among other things a pun on Simplicio from Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue; Adso deriving from “ad Simplicio” (“to Simplicio”). Adso’s putative place of origin, Melk, is the site of a famous medieval library, at Melk Abbey. His name also of course echoes the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson (omitting the first and last letters, and with “t” and “d” being phonetically similar).
With such linguistic riches dripping from every page, this is also rollicking good story. With it’s wonderfully elegant descriptions of monastic architecture and it’s love of beautiful illuminated manuscripts Eco probably gets as close to an accurate portrayal of life in a late medieval scholarly Italian monastery as any modern writer could. Is it any wonder then, that The Name of The Rose has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling books ever published.
Maybe you can tell by now that I am a little in love with this book. When The Folio Society issued its beautiful Limited edition I had to add it to my collection of most treasured books. Oh, yes I will still be watching every episode of the new tv series.
If you want to know a bit more about the story, here is a fuller synopsis copied with grateful thanks from Wikipedia:
In 1327, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice travelling under his protection, arrive at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological disputation. This abbey is being used as neutral ground in a dispute between Pope John XXII, and the Franciscans, who are suspected of heresy.
The monastery is disturbed by the death of Adelmo of Otranto, an illuminator revered for his illustrations. Adelmo was skilled at comical artwork, especially concerning religious matters. William is tasked by the monastery’s abbot, Abo of Fossanova, to investigate the death, and he has a debate with one of the oldest monks in the abbey, Jorge of Burgos, about the theological meaning of laughter, which Jorge despises.
The next day, a scholar of Aristotle and translator of Greek and Arabic, Venantius of Salvemec, is found dead in a vat of pig’s blood. Previously, William and Adso had been prohibited from entering the labyrinthine library by the librarian Malachi of Hildesheim, so they penetrate the labyrinth, discovering that there must be a hidden room, entitled the finis Africae. Benno of Uppsala, a rhetoric scholar, reveals to William that Malachi, and his assistant Berengar of Arundel, had a homosexual relationship, until Berengar seduced Adelmo, who committed suicide out of conflicting religious shame. The only other monks who knew about the indiscretions were Jorge and Venantius.
By the day after, Berengar has gone missing, which puts pressure onto William. William learns of how Salvatore of Montferrat, and Remigio of Varagine, two cellarer monks, had a history with the Dulcinian heretics. Meanwhile, Adso is seduced by a peasant girl, with whom he has his first sexual experience. After confessing to William, Adso is absolved, although he still feels guilty. Severinus of Sankt Wendel, the herbalist, tells William that Venantius’s body had black stains on the tongue and fingers, which suggests poison. William and Adso penetrate the library once more, discovering that Venantius had a book stolen from him, which they pursue.
On the fourth day, Berengar is found drowned in a bath, although he bears stains similar to those of Venantius. Bernard Gui, a member of the Inquisition, arrives to search for the murderer via papal deduction. Due to this arrival, Gui arrests the peasant girl Adso loved, as well as Salvatore, accusing them both of heresy.
Remigio is interrogated by Gui, who scares him into revealing his heretic past, as well as falsely confessing to the crimes of the Abbey. Severinus then is found dead in his room, to which Jorge responds by leading a sermon about the coming of the Antichrist.
Malachi returns to the early sermon that day near death, and his final words concern scorpions. Nicholas of Morimondo, the glazier, tells William that whoever is the librarian would then become the Abbot, and with new light, William goes to the library to search for evidence. The Abbot is distraught that William has not solved the crime, and that the Inquisition is undermining him, so he fires William. That night, William and Adso penetrate the library once more in search of the finis Africae.
William and Adso discover Jorge waiting for them in the forbidden room. He says that he has been masterminding the Abbey for years, and his last victim is the Abbot himself, who has been trapped in a secret passage of the library. The Abbot suffocates, and Jorge tells them that Venantius’s hidden book was Aristotle’s Second Poetics, which speaks of the virtues of laughter, something Jorge despises. Jorge put poison on the pages on the book, knowing that a reader would have to lick his fingers to turn them. Venantius was translating the book and died. Berengar found the body and disposed of it in pig’s blood, fearing exposure, before reading the book himself and dying. Malachi was convinced by Jorge to retrieve the book, which was stashed with Severinus, so he kills Severinus and retrieves the book, before getting curious and dying as well.
All of the murders time out with the Seven Trumpets, which call for objects falling from the sky (Adelmo threw himself from a tower), pools of blood, poison from water, bashing of the stars (Severinus was killed with his head bashed in with a celestial orb), scorpions, locusts, and fire. Jorge consumes the book’s poisoned pages and uses Adso’s lantern to start a fire, which burns down the library. As the fire spreads to the rest of the abbey, William laments his failure. Confused and defeated, William and Adso escape the abbey. Years later, Adso, now aged, returns to the ruins of the abbey and collects books that were salvaged from the fire, creating a lesser library.