Umberto Eco Eco, Umberto (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Masolino D'Amico

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Gian-Paolo Biasin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the cover of Eco's novel Il nome della rosa there is the outline of the labyrinth which one appeared on the floor of the Reims cathedral, and which was destroyed during the eighteenth century because children made a playful use of the maze and disturbed the sacred functions "for evidently perverse ends." Hence, from its very appearance, Eco's novel is posited under two signs: the labyrinth as an artistic structure, and play as transgression. Both are at the core of the book and explain its powerful appeal.

Thematically, the labyrinth is the form of the library of an abbey in northern Italy in the year of the Lord 1327, where seven consecutive murders take place in a mysterious connection with the quest for a lost (and forbidden) volume, Aristotle's second book of poetics, dealing with laughter and comedy. Almost until the end, a blind and fearsome Benedictine friar, Jorges da Burgos, defies the reasoned efforts of a Sherlock-Holmesian Dominican friar, Guglielmo da Baskerville, to trace the murders to the lost volume in the labyrinthine library. The events are faithfully recorded by another friar, the old Adso da Melck, who witnessed them as a young novice…. But in the process the narrator conveys an incredible mass of medievalia…. (p. 449)

Play is at the core of the plot because it is forbidden and hidden in the abbey's library, the site of serious knowledge…. But play should also be considered...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Franco Ferrucci

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Using both intelligence and flexibility, [Mr. Eco] has become the spokesman of a philosophical trend that could be labeled as a kind of "neo-enlightenment." His approach entails methodological doubting versus dogmatism, and the use of parody and irony against sectarian thought; his idea of culture is that it is mainly a channel of interdisciplinary exchange rather than a provider of certainties or a chapel for hermetic and initiatory rites.

But that description is already a beginning of an interpretation of Mr. Eco's novel. "The Name of the Rose" takes place in the 14th century. In some of his essays Mr. Eco has linked that century with our age, with all of its certainties weakened under the combined blows of new sciences and contradictory social events. Aptly enough, the novel is a mystery, the most rationalist of all literary genres, based on a determination to reach irrefutable, if partial, truth: Who is the assassin and what are his motives? And what signs will help to unravel the mystery?

In the novel, William of Baskerville, the protagonist, has been called to investigate a crime in a Benedictine abbey. Like Sherlock Holmes, William comes from England—not from Scotland Yard, however, but from the philosophical school of Roger Bacon and William of Occam, the founders of cognitive empiricism, a philosophy based on the exact examination of real evidence revealed by the senses and thus a perfect tool for unraveling a mystery. It is to these men that our learned and ironic monk-detective constantly refers.

The story is narrated by Adso, a novice who is young and whose admiration of William is naïve…. Adso speaks in the name of a faith that William has probably lost. The old biblical problem, about whether the first sin was a forbidden pursuit of knowledge or a sin of disobedience, finds no answer. Does the passion for knowledge derive from loss of faith? Or, in today's terms: Does semiotics derive from loss of certainty in unshakable truth?

The assassin himself gives us an answer when he finally confesses the reasons for his crimes. His motivations deal with a poetic and philosophic problem that I cannot reveal without being unfair to the reader. It is enough to say that wild theological discussions develop between William of Baskerville and the murderer. After the discovery of the culprit, the novel explodes with pyrotechnic inventions, literally as well as figuratively. Hold on till the end.

The narrative impulse that commands the story is irresistible. That is no mean feat for a book in which many pages describe ecclesiastical councils or theological debates, and many others analyze in detail the positions of European powers regarding the...

(The entire section is 1129 words.)

Michael Dirda

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Name of the Rose [is] a novel of murder, politics and ideas that has rightly become an acclaimed European best seller.

Late in 1327 a Franciscan, William of Baskerville, accompanied by the novice Adso of Melk, journeys to an unnamed Benedictine monastery to arrange a meeting of detente between representatives of Pope John and Emperor Louis. Just as master and disciple arrive at the abbey, a young monk commits suicide under suspicious circumstances. The worldly abbot asks the Sherlock Holmes-like Franciscan—a disillusioned inquisitor and former pupil of Roger Bacon—to investigate the shadowy affair. To this end, William is granted free run of the establishment—except for the library, the finest in all Christendom. Malachi the librarian and his assistant prohibit any direct access to the fragile illuminated manuscripts. And if a man were to try to enter the locked tower rooms? "No one," replies the abbot, "even if he wished, would succeed. The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter and you might not emerge."

Ah, now that's the kind of demonic book room that Jorge Luis Borges might imagine. And indeed, William and Adso soon meet the ancient blind monk Jorge de Burgos, whose name and bookishness recall the Argentine fabulist (as does the novel's learned preface about how the author researched Adso's manuscript). Such homage whispers, sub rosa, that Eco's novel aims to be modernist as well as medieval, to reflect both the time of its action and the time of its telling. William, for example, embodies a spirit of tolerance and scientific inquiry, that of the approaching Renaissance; he consequently appears a relatively modern man surrounded by religious fanatics, many of these actual historical figures. In the course of his detecting this relentless bloodhound of Baskerville meets, for instance, the mystic Ubertino of Casale, the inquisitor Bernard of Gui, the general of the Franciscans Michael of Cesena, and followers of the Italian leveler, Fra Dolcino. Each of these believes he possesses the Truth; yet their voices and vociferations resonate in 20th-century ears with the stridency of born-again evangelicals, fascists, corporation climbers, Marxist fellow-travelers.

The mirroring of now-in-then seems peculiarly appropriate in The Name of the Rose for such a technique mimics the figural or typological thinking common to the...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Jeffrey Schaire

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Name of the Rose, [Eco's] first work of fiction, he has bestowed his own talents lavishly on his created sleuth. William knows that "the universe is talkative … and it speaks not only of the ultimate things (which it does always in an obscure fashion) but also of closer things, and then it speaks quite clearly." His acumen in deciphering the secret signs of the world would be sufficient delight, but Eco's complex themes include sparkling disquisitions on the arts of the Middle Ages—its architecture, manuscript illumination, gemmology, herbarism, numerology, cuisine, and witchcraft, as well as witty and erudite depictions of its manners, morals, and intricately twined politics and theology.

Eco has done more than create a learned diversion. The Name of the Rose (like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Pale Fire) is a mirrored hallway; each strand of the tale is in some sense merely a reflection, a blind alley, a red herring. As the clues proliferate and William and Adso approach the heart of the labyrinth, so do the possibilities of what they may find there. Yet, as they follow one red herring after another, the riddle is nonetheless resolved, and its solution reveals Eco's novel to be an eloquent speculum mundi of our own age. The Name of the Rose is an antidetective-story detective story; as a semiotic murder mystery it is superbly entertaining; it is also an extraordinary work of novelistic art. (p. 76)

Jeffrey Schaire, in a review of "The Name of the Rose," in Harper's (copyright © 1983 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the August, 1983 issue by special permission), Vol. 267, No. 1599, August, 1983, pp. 75-6.