Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The hook couldn’t be more obvious. When a string of strange deaths plagues a wealthy Italian abbey, Brother William of Baskerville is called to unravel the mystery. In this 14th-century thriller, every death exposes a new piece of an age-old conspiracy. Dangerous knowledge and the future of the Catholic Church hang in the balance. Follow along as William races against time to crack the case!

That’s what I was expecting when I picked up Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: an older, more erudite sibling of The Da Vinci Code: a mass-market page-turner. But I was wrong.

The Name of the Rose is plodding and complex. It does not have the pace of a murder mystery and that’s because it’s actually much more of a historical novel than anything else. Its first priority — far above entertaining the reader or advancing the plot — is to situate itself perfectly in history, to merge so cleanly with the past that the reader can’t see the seams. The Name of the Rose is obsessive in a lot of ways, beginning with its own credibility.

Your typical murder mystery starts with a bang, but this one starts with a fake history lesson. In the opening pages we learn that The Name of the Rose is not actually a novel written by Umberto Eco. Eco has merely translated and titled a book given to him in 1968 by someone named Abbé Vallet. This book was Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, Vallet’s 1842 French translation of a Latin text written by an aging monk, Adso of Melk, in 14th-century Italy. Adso’s original text is the story itself: the mysterious saga of seven deaths in 1327, which he witnessed firsthand in his youth while shadowing his master — our detective — William of Baskerville. To recap: you’re reading a (fictitious) Latin 14th-century eyewitness account, translated into French by (the fictitious) Abbé Vallet in 1842, translated again (but not actually) into Italian by Umberto Eco in 1980, and if you’re reading the English version, you can add yet another layer for William Weaver’s (fantastic) 1983 English translation.

With its own origins settled, the book spends the subsequent 500 pages weaving itself as tightly into the fabric of history as possible. The Name of the Rose is part of that special breed of historical fiction that doesn’t merely fork off of recorded events but integrates so completely with them that it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. I certainly struggled with this, so if you’re going to read the book I highly recommend brushing up on the medieval history of the Catholic Church. Key actors and topics include Michael of Cesena, Louis IV, William of Ockham, popes of that time period, and evangelical poverty. You may also wish to learn Latin.

Here’s the background I wish I’d had before I started reading. The Name of the Rose pivots on a doctrine known as evangelical (or apostolic) poverty, which was particularly divisive in the 14th century and which calls for Christians to live without holding any property. The belief stems from Luke 10, in which Jesus sends his 70 disciples on a mission without any supplies: “Go away; lo, I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves; carry no bag, no scrip, nor sandals.” Thus a small subset of Catholics began to equate not having any property with being holy. For obvious reasons this idea appealed to the impoverished masses, who had a head start on not owning anything, and the movement picked up steam. In the early 14th century, Pope John XXII made every attempt to block its progression, in fear that it would cast a negative light on the Church and ultimately threaten its wealth and land ownership, and the widespread control they offered. He condemned it as heretical in 1323 but that didn’t stop the Spiritual Franciscans, so named for their devotion to Saint Francis of Assisi, from continuing to live by this contentious doctrine. The Spiritual Franciscans were supported by Louis IV, then king of the Romans and of Italy, and led by Michael of Cesena. In 1327, Pope John would summon Michael to Avignon to answer for his order’s “heretical” behavior, an event that would lead to Michael’s excommunication.

So where does The Name of the Rose fit in? Eco’s story takes place just before Michael’s arrival in Avignon, somewhere along his journey through Italy, in an abbey tucked into the mountains. Here, the story goes, Michael and his order would stop to meet with some of the pope’s men so that they might resolve their differences peacefully and privately. Presiding over the meeting would be William of Baskerville, a Franciscan loyalist who might enable the Franciscans to absolve themselves of heresy before it was too late — before Michael would be forced to walk right into the pope’s hands at Avignon.

The story begins with William and Adso traveling to the abbey a few days early to prepare for the meeting. But upon their arrival they learn some troubling news. One night earlier, a monk plummeted to his death from the tallest building in the abbey. Over the next several days more strange and horrible deaths transpire and so the stakes become clear: William must solve this mystery before the pope’s delegation arrives. Otherwise, foul play will be suspected and the meeting will be for naught. The future of the Franciscan order depends on William’s mystery-solving skills.

It is an absolute pleasure to follow William as he uncovers the abbey’s darkest secrets, often by making forbidden trips to the abbey’s labyrinth of a library, and edges closer to solving the puzzle. But this is no free ride. Much is demanded of the reader; I found it impossible to keep track of everything without taking notes. The Name of the Rose is not only obsessed with situating itself in history but with ensconcing the reader in that rich historical context as well. You will learn more about religious sects and Biblical interpretation than you ever cared to know. You will be invited to ponder the political aspirations of the Church and its relation to various European rulers. The text indulges in erudite discussions of philosophy and semiotics. A central plot device hinges on how certain geographical locations produce — or should produce — certain manners of thinking. Nothing is easy.

Even the most foundational part of the story, its characters, proves challenging. The reader is responsible for tracking a dense list of characters, both real and fictional, that never stops expanding. There are two Williams and two Berengars. There’s Abo and Adso and Adelmo. There are characters introduced early who never reappear and characters introduced late who are essential to the plot. I took notes on twenty-two of them, not counting the historical figures who don’t appear in the story, and I’m probably missing a lot more.

The question isn’t Does Eco pull it off? — he does, spectacularly — but Is it worth the effort? Some books are worth reading simply because they’re hard. Does The Name of the Rose fit that bill or is it somehow also enjoyable? Can it be difficult and fun?

I won’t lie to you. It is absolutely a slog at times. A friend of mine who recently read the book complained to me about a chapter in which Adso spends six pages describing a door. Adso loves to catalog things, almost to the point of hilarity. At one point he gains entry to the abbey’s vault and describes the treasures within — “Gold vestments, golden crowns, studded with gems, coffers of various metals engraved with figures, works in niello and ivory. […] I saw, wonder of wonders, under a glass bell, on a red cushion embroidered with pearls, a piece of the manger of Bethlehem, and a hand’s length of the purple tunic of Saint John the Evangelist, two links of the chains that bound the ankles of the apostle Peter in Rome…” — and it’s amazing he doesn’t run out of commas.

So, sure, there are moments when The Name of the Rose feels more like work than play. But it does reward the reader with some wonderful scenes of sleuthing. Put simply, it is fun in the way you want a detective novel to be. William of Baskerville is a great character: cunning, moral, independent, and always a step ahead. You never tire of watching him solve mysteries. The reader is first exposed to his brilliance during his and Adso’s initial ascent to the abbey. When the pair is approached by a band of monks, William immediately intuits that they are searching for a lost horse. He tells the monks where the horse has been and where it has gone, and describes its appearance in great detail:

“Brunellus, the abbott’s favorite horse, fifteen hands, the fastest in your stables, with a dark coat, a full tail, small round hoofs, but a very steady gait; small head, sharp ears, big eyes.”

This bewilders the monks and Adso, too, because, as William says, “ ‘We haven’t seen him at all.’ ” A few moments later the horse is found exactly where William said he would be. When Adso asks William how he was able to deduce so much without ever seeing the horse, William’s response is perfect:

“During our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. […] I am almost embarrassed to repeat to you what you should know. At the crossroads, on the still-fresh snow, a horse’s hoofprints stood out very neatly, heading for the path to our left. Neatly spaced, those marks said that the hoof was small and round, and the gallop quite regular — and so I deduced the nature of the horse, and the fact that it was not running wildly like a crazed animal. At the point where the pines formed a natural roof, some twigs had been freshly broken off at a height of five feet. One of the blackberry bushes where the animal must have turned to take the path to his right, proudly switching his handsome tail, still held some long black horsehairs in its brambles….”

And so on, until every last detail has been explained. There aren’t a lot of these Sherlock Holmes-esque reveals but each is more imaginative than the last, making for a deeply satisfying read.

A good murder mystery is clever when it needs to be, but this one is clever whenever it can be. Eco prefers his humor arid, and I can only assume that for every joke I understood there were about a hundred more that sailed straight over my head. Join the fun — find the joke in this passage:

“But those were times when, to forget an evil world, grammarians took pleasure in abstruse questions. I was told that in that period, for fifteen days and fifteen nights, the rhetoricians Gabundus and Terentius argued on the vocative of ‘ego,’ and in the end they attacked each other, with weapons.”

No? Your Latin is in need of a good dusting. The joke is that the rhetoricians were arguing over the vocative of ego, which is the Latin word for “I.” In Latin, nouns are expressed in cases, with each case serving a particular function. The genitive case, for example, is used to show ownership over something: it’s the Latin version of an apostrophe. The vocative case referred to above is used when directly addressing someone else. If you wanted to say hello to your friend Marcus, you’d say “Salve Marce”; the name “Marcus” changes to “Marce” in the vocative case. The rhetoricians were arguing over the vocative of “I,” which is funny because one never addresses another person with “I,” and so the argument is pointless. Well, at least until weapons get involved.

But silly me. I didn’t realize that this pun isn’t Eco’s own invention but an allusion to a text by the 7th-century author Virgil the Grammarian. The Name of the Rose is many things, but accessible is not one of them.

Occasionally Eco tosses the reader a bone. During William and Adso’s visit to the abbey’s vault, Adso gets starry-eyed over the rare religious artifacts, such as a fragment of the True Cross, and William cautions him not to pay them too much heed:

“I have seen many other fragments of the cross, in other churches. If all were genuine, our Lord’s torment could not have been on a couple of planks nailed together, but on an entire forest.”

You’re not alone if this humor isn’t your cup of tea. Adso has trouble with it, too:

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 front cover of my copy of The Name of the Rose features a snippet from the New York Times review written by Franco Ferrucci: “Explodes with pyrotechnic inventions, literally as well as figuratively. Hold on till the end.” I happen to agree with Ferrucci, not because of the story’s climactic finale but for a different reason: the 30-page postscript that Eco wrote three years after his novel’s publication. (Apparently his obsession with contextualization didn’t stop after he finished writing.) Within, Eco addresses a number of questions that the book raised, as well as what his goals were in telling this particular story and what he was thinking about as he wrote.

I should probably mention that his postscript isn’t a cheat sheet or a guide to interpretation. On the contrary, Eco carefully avoids giving anything away. “The author should die once he has finished writing,” he explains. “So as not to trouble the path of the text.” Eco appears to be tapping into the same stuff that Roland Barthes proposed in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” which argues that “to give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.” Eco pursues the idea a little further and implies that if an author’s mere existence is enough to handicap a novel, then explaining a novel would undermine its raison d’être:

A narrator should not supply interpretations of his work; otherwise he would not have written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations.

So you won’t find any explanations in this postscript. What you’ll find instead is a bounty of observations and tidbits that contextualize the writing process much more than the text itself. The best part of any detective novel is climbing into the head of the mastermind, so it’s a total joy to climb into the head of the mastermind behind the mastermind. Where did the idea for this story come from? How did he make choices in narration and tone? What regrets does he have? It’s all there, and it’s all fascinating.

Let me give you an example. It ruins very little about the novel to give away one of its gory deaths: that one character was discovered dead, “thrust head down into” a jar of pigs’ blood. This is the kind of detail that makes quite an impression on the reader — and on the monks who discovered the dead man, to be sure — for obvious reasons, and the symbolism of the gesture serves a larger plot point that I won’t go into. But I’ll admit that I never pondered why exactly there would be a vat of fresh pigs’ blood available. I kind of just accepted it. But Eco did not include this detail on a whim; he organized the story around it:

But why does everything take place at the end of November 1327? Because by December, Michael of Cesena is already in Avignon. […] But November is too early. I also needed to have a pig slaughtered. Why? The answer is simple: so that the corpse could be thrust, head down, into a great jar of blood. […] Now, it so happens (I made inquiries) that pigs are not slaughtered until cold weather comes, and November might be too early — unless I situated the abbey in the mountains, so there would already be snow.

The commitment to historicity— what Eco calls “furnishing a world in a historical novel” — is astonishing. There are other reveals in his postscript that I am dying to include but can’t without spoiling the story. Eco’s original motivation for writing this novel? Hilarious. The secrets behind the labyrinthine library, which he spent three months designing? Unfathomable. Forgive the apparent hyperbole: the man is simply that good.

In addition to revealing a few of the magician’s secrets, the postscript serves to validate the reader’s journey. I felt rather self-conscious about finding the story slow-going until I discovered that Eco had made it crawl on purpose:

After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.

The concept of pace — what Eco calls “breathing” — is only one example of the many ways that the author has considered his reader. Eco has labored over the title, setting, historicity, voice, religious history, humor, emotion, entertainment value, and practically everything else one could consider about a book. The result is exceptional, and almost nauseating when you realize that this was Eco’s first novel.

Recall that when Adso and William first climbed the hill to the abbey, William implored Adso “ ‘to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book.’ ” Eco, who died last year, was a trained semiotician and dedicated much of his life to understanding how the world’s symbols speak to us. He has written much of himself into William, a character who excels at detective work because of his commitment to interpreting symbols, symbols that he knows are not limited but infinite in their expression, and that therefore speak differently to different people. Likewise, Eco remarks in his postscript that he wanted every reader of his book to emerge with a different interpretation, and I expect that he has succeeded. For if it is true that the world speaks to us like a great book, then perhaps it is also true that a great book can speak to us like the world, and that like the world it can provide a unique and transformative experience for everyone involved. Umberto Eco has left us with a world waiting to be discovered, tucked away in history, in language, in the cold Italian mountains…

Climb the hill.