Friday, November 17, 2017

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

First, an announcement.

For the last several years I've been keeping up a steady once-a-week blog post here on Vintage Novels. It's worked well for me so far, but recently I've been becoming more busy and my rate of vintage-novel intake has declined. Meanwhile, other avenues of writing have opened up to me, and I've been looking for ways to fit them into my schedule.

With that in mind, I've come to a decision, which is that I'm going to go ahead and post every fortnight instead of every week. And I'm going to put the time thus freed up into writing other things.

I actually think this could be a good thing for Vintage Novels. Over the last couple of years I've felt a little pressured by the once-a-week timetable, into prioritising shorter works over longer ones. With a fortnightly schedule, I'll be able to throw some more lengthy works into the mix (Brothers Karamazov, here I come!).

And now for a review of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Set in the early 1300s, this is the story of Adso, a young Benedictine novice who is accompanying Franciscan friar William of Baskerville on a diplomatic mission in northern Italy. The mission is to attend a theological disputation which has emerged from a complex struggle between the Franciscan order, the Pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor - but William and Adso arrive to discover that a murder has been committed.

The local abbot, nervous that any disruption in his monastery will result in the Pope's representatives taking control, begs William to solve the mystery before the papal delegation arrives. Then, one by one, more tragedies strike. Gradually, William becomes aware that the abbey is full of dark undercurrents of politics, theology, and lust - and the nexus at the heart of these seething undercurrents seems to be the library, where a long-lost manuscript is rumoured to lie awaiting discovery. Worse still, the more William and Adso investigate, the more confusing the whole situation becomes. What will happen if they can't solve the mystery?

First of all, a content advisory - this book is not for the faint of heart, and some passages are explicit, though in the most offputting way imaginable, so I wasn't particularly offended.

Second, a spoiler warning, since it's very difficult to discuss the message in this book without discussing the ending!

So, I didn't love this book, and I didn't hate it either. It is, of course, primarily about the medieval age as it was growing old. You have the medieval tension between Plato and Aristotle on one side, and the challenges posed to the medieval world by men like William of Ockham and Roger Bacon on the other. And because Eco is so knowledgeable about the medieval world, there's a lot of convincing detail here, and the characters often seem to have convincingly medieval attitudes about things.

But the book was written in the twentieth century, and it's not a medieval book. In fact, I found it aggressively postmodern. This is a book that's very much about epistemology and knowledge, and too often I thought the book's hero William of Baskerville seemed too much like an up-to-date postmodern skeptic in a monk's habit, which spoiled my suspension of disbelief a little. Then again, maybe if I knew more about the philosophical wranglings of the time period, I wouldn't find Eco's interpretation so jarring.

The plot is a murder mystery, which keeps you turning pages even through dense paragraphs of backstory and detours into philosophy and theology, all of which Eco gradually ties into the central theme. The sheer level of detail in this book is overwhelming and immersive, and the reader digs through it all in the hope that there may be clues hiding here that will be important later. And so there are...except that infuriatingly, the clues do not actually lead to the solution of the mystery. Rather, the actual solution is only revealed through a series of coincidences. One clue is even given to the narrator in a bizarre dream, and it turns out that one of William's most important theories was a complete mistake. They do find the murderer anyway, but the overarching point seems to be about the randomness and unknowability of life.

Of course, this violates the very rules of mystery writing, which is obviously the point. Eco tries to be creative, and he achieves brilliance, but he doesn't achieve a good story. By the end of his book, all the satisfaction that comes from a detective story has dissipated. We have had all the set-up, but no pay-off: the mystery has a solution, but its discovery is a complete accident.

This is not to say that Eco's point is worthless. It actually reminded me of a point GK Chesterton makes in The Club of Queer Trades: "Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree." But whereas Chesterton used this to argue for the necessity of intuition and of revelation, it seemed to me that Eco used it to argue for total epistemological skepticism.

William of Baskerville appears in the novel with a kind of burgeoning empiricism stemming from the influence of Bacon and Ockham. It's because of his ability to observe facts and deduce others that the abbot asks him to solve the murders. But, while William's rationalism puts him at an advantage compared to many of the other monks, it doesn't ultimately help him solve the case.

There's even a whole scene where William bewails the impossibility of knowing truth, and the evil that comes from trying. He says, "I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe." William uses logic and evidence throughout the story, but the whole point, driven home at the end of the last chapter, is that it doesn't lead him to truth. He says he "should have known" at the end of this book, because at the beginning he's already given up being an inquisitor; he's given up trying to find the difference between heresy and orthodoxy using those tools, so it was foolish of him to try to find the murderer that way.

In the book, knowledge is most memorably symbolised by the monastery library, which is one of the book's most satisfying and intriguing symbols. A labyrinth jealously locked away from common access by the spiritual elites of the medieval world, the library is used by those with access to it to coerce and tempt others. William and Adso, the empiricist and his apprentice, penetrate the library and map it out, learning its secrets. But by the end of the story, the library is destroyed in a cataclysmic fire along with the whole monastery. Long after the site is abandoned, Adso returns to scavenge what he can: scraps, pages, and fragments. "I sudied them with love...At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books." Because of the hubris of those that sought to hoard and control knowledge, because of the hubris of those who presume to systematise and use knowledge, knowledge itself is destroyed, leaving only incomprehensible, random scraps.

The Name of the Rose is a fascinating, yet ultimately pessimistic look at epistemology through the postmodern worldview. It actually reminded me very strongly of Jorge Luis Borges, whose short stories also deal heavily in postmodernism, symbols, labyrinths, and libraries. This is obviously intentional - there's even a character named Jorge of Borgos in homage to him. I always felt that Borges could have written a wonderful novel if he'd wanted to, and The Name of the Rose seems to be that novel.

And yet, when all is said and done, Borges's five-page stories are perhaps exactly the right length to explain postmodernism. After 500 pages of The Name of the Rose, the ultimate disappointment and pessimism at the book's heart feels a hundred times as much of a letdown.

Find The Name of the Rose on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Thoughts? Objections? I'd love to hear from you!


xavier said...

Which is my Eco's atheism after youthful religious fervour was deeply disappointing. He traded a rich legacy for an insufferable pessimism. Sure Foucault's pendulum should've forewarned Dan Brown not to write consulted pseudo religious thrillers but in the end Umberto's writing became more and more unsatisfying.the Cemetery of Prague is a case in point

Suzannah said...

Xavier, I had to laugh at the comparison of Eco and Dan Brown...but of course while one is a genius and the other is a hack, I suppose it does them little good when neither know the truth.

xavier said...

I understand the irony but Dan Brown read Focault's Pendulum and figured he could do plagiarizing even more turgid mediocre writings. Dan Brown was forewarned but didn't listen. No,now AI will become the new god in his latest waste of paper.
You far too kind. He's not a hack; at least those writers are honest; he's a plagarist who can't even steal properly . Eco was fun because he used his vast knowledge to entertain even if the subsequent novels became increasingly unsatifying.


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