Friday, 28 May 2010

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

After having seen the film and hearing that the book was quite good, I decided to read The Name of the Rose for the Classics Challenge 2010 as my “Classic to be” book. Since it isn’t actually that old (the original Italian version was published in 1980), it’s not actually a classic, but I’m certain this is one of those books that will stay with us for a very long time.

The book’s plot focuses on the arrival of William of Baskerville and his acolyte Adso at the monastery in Italy. Shortly before their arrival, a young monk is found dead which disturbs the inner peace of the monastery and William is asked to investigate. Unfortunately, he has trouble doing so as he is not allowed as much access to the buildings, in particular the library, as he needs in order to fully investigate the incident. It is almost as if the whole of the monastery is a fighting him while urging him on at the same time. They want a solution, but not necessarily the solution. Most of all, they want it quickly as there are several delegations due to arrive to discuss the complex religious/political situation in Europe. They fear that any questionable death will reflect poorly on them and lead the Inquisitor Bernardo de Gui to investigate upon his arrival. Unfortunately, the William is unable to find a solution before the next murder takes place and soon the monastery becomes a dangerous place to be at all, especially after the arrival of de Gui.

Even though this book is often sold as a whodunit, especially after the airing of the film in 1986 with Sean Connery, the focus of the book is less on the mystery and more on the political and religious turmoil of the time. There are many lengthy explanations and discussions about religious sects, their doctrines, who are persecuting whom, why and how this all relates to the politics of the times. There seems to have been many different opinions as to what Jesus would have done in regards to poverty and laughter. Instead of trusting to their own common sense or turning to prayer to find an answer, the monks ore looking for hard evidence as a basis for their teachings within the behaviour of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately the Bible isn’t particularly specific about either subject and this leads to much discussion, some of it quite angry.

Not being personally interested in such matters and finding some of the arguments overly pedantic and not particularly helpful or practical, I sometimes found it difficult to continue reading. I spent a lot of time thinking “build a bridge and get over it before you burn the damn thing to the ground having never used it”. It was often as if they were standing in their own way. Eco does make this point in the novel, that the monastery is hoarding books for the sake of hoarding rather than for the sake of passing on religious knowledge. The monks were too caught up in the pedantry of learning to be useful to anyone but themselves. I also had difficulty with the abundance of Latin or other languages without translation. If often seems as if I had to skip quite a bit simply because I never learned the ancient languages.

Having said this, the book is very clever indeed. Just about everything Eco does contains more than the meaning of the words on the page and I think it would be a better book if taught/discussed rather than just read for pleasure. Like me, if you’re not versed or particularly interested in religious history and doctrine of the time, it can be difficult to follow and I know I would have benefitted from reading this in a class rather than just on my own. So, I give this one a 3 out of 5 for fun reading, but a 5 out of 5 for cleverly combining mystery and learning.

1 comment:

postJazz said...

It's been ages since I read it, but I actually thought that not understanding all the other languages was part of the point, about there always being more knowledge and things being tantalisingly out of reach etc.