Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Great Library Challenge: Eco, Umberto The Name of the Rose

Posted by lea at 2:40 PM
Wow - finishing this book was quite a feat. This very dense and complex mystery is set in a Benedictine monastery in the 14th century before the complete power separation of state and church. The main protagonists are William of Baskerville, a Sherlock Holmes-esque character who is sent with his sidekick novice Adso (the narrator) to investigate some mysterious deaths occurring in the abbey.

The narrative is filled with gothic religious imagery, set in the confines of a cloistered and esoteric sect, and backgrounded by the religious power struggle that defined the church of the day.

The book is dense and multi-faceted - laid simply, these layers are:
  • the mystery that William attempts to unravel with every clue: how and why are the monks dying in such strange circumstances;
  • the theme of the danger of seeking and/or suppressing knowledge. All the clues lead to the mysterious and closely guarded library - the centre of knowledge;
  • social commentary on the atmosphere of the 14th century, the power struggle between the emperor and the pope, and the thinly veiled political machinations that joust in the sphere of religious theology.
In one respect, this is like a high-brow literary version of Sherlock Holmes, although I'm not impressed by the fact that Umberto Eco has apparently never even acknowledged the debt of inspiration (or straight out plagiarism) he owes to Arthur Conan Doyle for the characters and the plot. William and Adso have great chemistry - one the sage, learned and experienced detective, and the other a naiive and innocent novice. There are some great moments of humour in the way Adso faithfully recaptures William's speech, sometimes unaware of the sarcasm or wit it accompanies:

I never understood when he was jesting. In my country, when you joke you say something and then you laugh very noisily, so everyone shares in the joke. But William laughed only when he said serious things, and remained very serious when he was presumably joking.
(The Name of the Rose: Sixth Day; Prime)

Whilst the events of the novel take place within a single week, the plot moves at a snail's pace. Entire chapters are taken up describing things that have no bearing to the plot (like the carvings on a door), and there are more red herrings than a fisherman's basket.

When you finally get to the end, it comes quite quickly and is rather climactic and powerful. However, I do have a bone to pick with Mr Eco. I won't spoil the plot, but suffice (though confusing) to say that the basis of the mystery boiled down to the belief by a single and powerful monk that humour and laughter were a blight on the honour of the church, and that fear is the basis of Godly faith:

But laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh... but law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God.
(The Name of the Rose: Seventh Day; Night)

But anyone who knows their Bible will know that it preaches the complete opposite of that:

He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy. (Job 8: 21)
A merry heart does good like medicine (Proverbs 17:22)
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but love, power and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

So how is it that so pious a monk believes in a completely opposite doctrine to the Bible? Christian dogma may have changed throughout the ages but the Bible hasn't. Are you telling me that this monk, who knows even the most mysterious books inside out, hasn't read it yet? This kinda ruined the mystery for me because all the work Eco put into making the story so believable unwinds on the hinge of such a trivial detail - much like the apple business at the end of the Da Vinci Code (so wrong of me to even mention that book in this post). Lame.

I know this book is considered a major classic, but I'd only recommend it to the hardcore because it's quite a slog to read, although it is ultimately rewarding. I'd write more about the whole theme on knowledge because it's a fascinating topic, but I've got to mull over it a bit more first, and it's time to move on to F in my Great Library Challenge.

Off the library's F section I go!


Caesar on September 30, 2010 at 3:51 PM said...

He sounds like Neal Stephenson's older alter-ego, with less geek-cred...

Fred Bloggs! on October 7, 2010 at 1:03 PM said...

Hi Lea,
Some G whizz suggestions:
Amitabh Ghosh: The Glass Palace
Gabriel García Márquez: No one writes to the colonelJohn Galsworthy: The Forsythe Saga
Gao Xinjian: One man’s bible
Don’t forget that the Middle Ages was a different world from today. Few people had in-depth knowledge of the Bible, even church people; until the Reformation it wasn’t translated into the vernacular languages, and it generally wasn’t done to think about it yourself; you got it interpreted for you from above. Despite our romanticised vision of the Middle Ages, it was actually a pretty awful time with diseases, wars and general intolerance. I thought it was brilliant to make William an acolyte of Francis Bacon, otherwise his free-thinking ways would have been a total anachronism in the Middle Ages.
When I first read it I thought that William of Baskerville was such an obvious ‘quote’ of Conan Doyle that I didn’t see it as plagiarism. But when I discovered that he’d “echoed” the idea of the poisoned book from the Arabian Nights, I was very disappointed… Even so, I love this book, each time I read it I find there’s more to discover.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not impressed by the fact that Umberto Eco has apparently never even acknowledged the debt of inspiration (or straight out plagiarism) he owes to Arthur Conan Doyle for the characters and the plot."
Umm, the main character is named William of BASKERVILLE. Allusions do not get more blatant than that. He also owes some inspiration to Jorge Luis Borges, which he acknowledges in the character Jorge of Burgos.
Come on, read more closely before you criticize.

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