The Name of the Rose

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Ordinarily, the murder mystery, like the Western and (until recently) science fiction, has been relegated to a literary ghetto and considered unworthy of serious critical attention except by students of popular culture, even though all of these genres may have significant work to offer. The Name of the Rose (published in Italy in 1980 as Il nome della rosa) combines a murder mystery with the historical novel (another genre that generally receives short shrift from the critical establishment) and succeeds brilliantly with them both.

In his first novel, Umberto Eco, a professor at the University of Bologna, brings to bear his skills as a historian, philosopher, aesthetician, and specialist in semiotics, as well as literary skills honed by his study of James Joyce. It would be surprising if he were not also a scholar of Dante, for like The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), The Name of the Rose encapsulates the entire Middle Ages.

It begins with a modern hoax, as Professor Eco presents a first-person introduction in which he claims to have discovered in 1968 a book published in 1842 by a French abbé who claimed in turn to have reproduced a fourteenth century manuscript by Adso, a monk from the German monastery of Melk. Eco claims to have translated Abbé Vallet’s work while sailing up the Danube to Melk, where he could not find Adso’s manuscript. By luck, however, Eco says, he discovered in Argentina much of Adso’s manuscript copied into an Italian translation of a Castilian version of a book on chess. Thus, Eco presents his novel as allegedly his “Italian version of an obscure, neo-Gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century.” There is considerably more of this literary detective work in the introduction, all of it bogus, but it helps prepare the reader for Eco’s blend of ratiocination, erudition, and scholarship and the formal style of the fiction to follow, and it lends a pretense that the narrative is authentic.

The narrator of the story proper is Adso, an aged monk looking back on the days when, as a young Benedictine novice, he was sent from Melk to an abbey in Italy. There, he came under the direction of a middle-aged Franciscan, Brother William of Baskerville, on a mission in 1327 to the Benedictine abbey reknowned for having the finest library in Christendom but now under suspicion for harboring heretics. Adso’s role as “scribe and disciple” to William is a device that allows the Franciscan to explain to the novice many things that the reader must also know; in addition, it allows Adso to play Dr. Watson to William’s Sherlock Holmes. The analogy is clearly intentional on Eco’s part, for his description of the tall, thin, ratiocinative Baskerville (his name an echo of The Hound of the Baskervilles?) is very close to that of Holmes, and in the opening episode William demonstrates to Adso his powers of deduction in a manner remarkably like that of Holmes with Watson.

Though the action of the novel is confined to the unnamed abbey (the bogus introduction tries to guess at its location), the narrative embraces a much larger sphere. William calls the abbey a microcosm; he has come there in advance to act as mediator between legations from the Holy Roman Emperor, whose emissary he is, and the notoriously corrupt Pope John XXII. In the papal party, there is an inquisitor infamous for his relentless persecution of alleged heretics. William had once been an inquisitor himself but forbore to condemn, let alone burn, anyone. To avoid building castles of suspicion on a mere word, he had insisted on convicting only for proved criminal acts, not for invisible deeds of alleged diabolism, and he soon gave up being an inquisitor altogether, being too much of a rationalist to believe in witchcraft.

While waiting for the legations to arrive, William must turn detective, for a monk has died mysteriously, and the abbot assigns William to solve the case, forbidding him, however, to enter the library, though it seems to contain the clue to the matter. This first death appears to be a suicide, but before William can solve the mystery, six more deaths occur, each grotesquely carried out in correspondence to the seven blasts of the trumpet in the Book of the Apocalypse. The seven deaths take place in a...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)