Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco



I've now read this three or four times. Still fun.

I’ve now read this book three or four times, beginning in the early 1980s, not too long after it became a surprise best-seller in the U.S. A murder mystery written set in the Middle Ages by an Italian scholar known for his work on the aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas and the theory of signs (semiotics) becomes a best-selling detective novel. Did his publishers anticipate this? Well, it worked, and despite hurdles, including numerous quotations in Latin and a one character who speaks in snippets of about every Romance language, the public loved it, and so did I. 

In this reading, I could savor parts. This time, I focused on the strange (or perhaps not so strange) mix of popular religion, popular discontent, elite rivalries (pope versus emperor), and ideology. Ideas about the role of poverty abound and provide an enduring theme in defining conflicts. The setting is in the 1327, not long after the death of Dante, and less than a century after St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi made their significant marks on medieval Christianity. The main character, William of Baskerville (literary allusions abound), himself a Franciscan, includes among his friends one William of Occam. New ideas are shaping the culture and machinations of political power continue apace, and it all coalesces at a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. Along with political, social, and religious upheaval, we have murder most foul. 

I won’t say more except that this book is a mystery: a detective story set in a time that remains for us moderns itself a mystery. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a better guide through this arcane world than Eco, the expert at reading the signs. Highly recommended, especially if you’re going to Italy in 2015. #Italy!2015. 

P.S. Don’t let the brevity of my review lead you to conclude that the work isn’t stellar. It is. Also, be sure and read the postscript. Eco the humanist scholar reflecting on this work.