The Name of the Rose is that rarest of books: a work that manages to be enjoyable without being escapist, an international best seller that crosses literary borders as readily as it does national ones, offering something for all its readers and most for those willing to appreciate the playful plural of this inviting yet intricate novelistic labyrinth. Part of its appeal stems from the fullness with which Umberto Eco depicts his medieval world, a world already made appealing by Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978) and films such as Excalibur (1981).
The Name of the Rose is not merely a historical novel with gothic shadings. It is also, and more obviously, a detective story (according to Eco, “the most metaphysical and philosophical” kind of plot), although in a parodic, metafictional, postmodern key. As indebted to the great Argentinean writer and national librarian Jorge Luis Borges as to Sherlock Holmes’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle, the novel presents “a mystery in which very little is discovered and the detective is defeated.”
The novel’s impure form constitutes a virtual library of literary echoes, ranging from whole genres to specific authors and works, a towering babel of intertextualized voices in the form of a seamless story, a celebration of narrative on one hand, a work not without political and pedagogical import on the other. Among its many pleasures is the way the novel, like the essays in Eco’s Travels in Hyper Reality (1986), makes the subject of Eco’s scholarly writings, semiotics, accessible to a nonacademic audience. The Name of the Rose is not, however, merely a medieval exemplum or detective story dressed up as a roman à these. Eco’s novel is “a machine for generating meanings,” a narrative version of the monastery’s labyrinthine library in which one finds the “maximum of confusion achieved with the maximum of order,” but a confusion intended to seduce, not repel. In this sense, the novel resembles the rose that figures so prominently in the novel’s first words, the title, and its last, where its meaning is both declared and disguised in the unattributed line from Bernard de Cluny’s De contemptu...
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