Umberto Eco 1932–
Italian scholar, editor, and novelist.
Known primarily among scholars for his works in the field of semiotics and as a medievalist, Eco gained wider recognition with the publication of his first novel, Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose). Set in a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy in 1327, this work is an intricately plotted "semiotic" murder mystery that can be read on many levels. It is at once a gothic thriller, a novel of ideas, and an elaborate recreation of medieval life and political and religious thought. Eco is especially acclaimed by critics for his ability to maintain with equal effectiveness the different levels of meaning of The Name of the Rose. Through the creation of his ingenious plot and the portrayal of his character's spiritual and intellectual conflict, he is able to fully engage the reader's interest in his tale. The novel is unanimously praised as a beautifully constructed work of both scholarship and the imagination.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
There is something of the sleuth in any scholar; small wonder, therefore, that one as flamboyantly articulate as Umberto Eco should have successfully turned his talents to the writing of a detective story, Il nome della rosa. But this, Eco's first novel, is no mere detective story; rather, its framework serves as a vehicle for nothing less than a summa of all the author knows about the Middle Ages—and all he wishes us to know…. Eco's rare gift for epitome has a chance to shine forth in this book and his own delight in his task is often infectious. At the same time, this very delight carries a risk: one is intermittently reminded of novels by Jules Verne such as Around the Moon, in which the author's desire to impart knowledge has carried him away, and leaves the reader toiling along behind, a little baffled. Still, like Verne, Eco exhibits a winning confidence in his own power to recapture our attention.Much ingenuity has gone into the plot. The action is set in a major Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy, in the turbulent year 1327. All over Europe the Church is persecuting the so-called Fraticelli, followers of a lapsed Franciscan, fra' Dolcino who was burnt at the stake twenty years earlier, and whose advocacy of total poverty may, it is feared, cause anarchy, and undermine the secular power of the Church. For this very reason the Emperor is encouraging the movement. A Franciscan brother, an Englishman with the Holmesian name of Guglielmo da Baskerville (his Watson, called Adso, tells the story; these, and the novel's Shakespearean title, are by no means Eco's only homage to English culture) arrives at the abbey to act as mediator between the forces of tolerance and the Pope's inquisitor, the chief persecutor of the Dolcinians, who is due to stop there on his way to the South. The newcomers find the abbey in turmoil after the sudden and violent death of a monk, and Baskerville is asked to revive his once famous gift for investigation, and throw light on the crime before the notables arrive. He does solve the murder, though not before several more monks have been similarly dispatched, seemingly in keeping with a crazy pattern based on the Book of Revelations. At the end of the story the abbey itself is reduced to ashes.
The murders are all connected with the exclusive, well-defended nerve-centre of the abbey, the library…. It is soon apparent that the victims have all come into contact with a certain dangerous codex, whose contents are disclosed only at the end.
Eco makes it clear that he is not aiming to create suspense—indeed, the deaths and other coups de théâtre are announced in the chapter-headings. But the novel is cunningly constructed, especially the description of the all-important and secret layout of the forbidden library whose architecture is a representation, as it were, of all available doctrine, sacred and profane. Nightly, and by slow degrees, this labyrinth reveals its mysteries to the...
(The entire section is 3,877 words.)