Friday, February 25, 2011

Review - The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose (Everyman's Library (Cloth))The Name of the Rose was a wildly interesting read that I'm glad I finally got around to reading. From a high level, the book is the story of a monk and his young assistant (novice) investigating a string of murders in a monastery in the 13th century. However, giving a "high level" overview of this book is a little misleading because there is just so, so, so much going on with this book. I read Foucault's Pendulum last year and the nature of the research and depth of this book is similar, but overall Name of the Rose is more accessible and likely to find a wider audience than Foucault's Pendulum.

A quote from Eco indicated that the book has three primary ways to be read: First, to read just for the plot. Second, to be read from a historical standpoint and learn about the workings and debates of the medieval church. Third, to be read as an intertextual novel.

The book follows a monk, William of Baskerville, and his assistant, Adso, as they travel to a monastery for the purpose of participating in a debate on a piece of church doctrine (the poverty of Christ) which was causing unrest and dissension among the various monastic orders. This particular issue, and many of the other conversations among the monks, is based on true historical events. The attention to detail and accuracy is one of the many things that impressed me a lot about this book and about Eco's writing in general. Reading some of the commentary of the book, it's explained how Eco went about determining the setting, the year and even the time of year for the book based on keeping true to research and data. Furthermore, the nature of the elements he wanted to include "forced" Eco to set his novel in a different century than the one he was already proficiently studied in (I believe the article indicated that Eco was well studied in 14th Century history)...but in order to keep the novel accurate, he set the novel in a different year and thus had to do more research.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the main plot follows the investigations of William and Adso as they try to solve a string of grisly murders within the monastery. We're also taken alongside them in the debate and discussion about theology and, as a later part of the investigation, get to see the nature of a medieval Inquisition.

The intertextuality of the story stood out to me quickly as William and Adso approached the monastery at the beginning and William deduced the "mystery" of a lost horse and then explained his deductive reasoning to Adso. I was quickly reminded of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Indeed, William's home (Baskerville) served as another tribute to Holmes. The format of the narration is also similar to the way Watson narrates the Holmes adventures. In a large degree, William and Adso are presented as a sort of medieval Sherlock and Watson. William is sometimes quirky and snarky but also has a very methodical deductive process that seems to get results.

Some of the other intertextual references were less obvious. I thought about a possible relation between Jorge of Burgos (one of the main monks) to the author Jorge Luis Borges. I haven't read enough of his work to see comparisons or tributes or anything, but in the commentary I read, it indicated that Eco definitely wanted to give a nod to Borges. There were a few other potential intertextual references that were less known to me, but also very interesting. The title of the book is apparently an intertextual reference to lines of a poem quoted at the very end of the book. I don't understand the full relationship, but it is an added element to shine on the depth of meticulous research that Eco uses in his writing.

Overall, I found that the depth and detail of the novel was very, very intriguing but it also slowed down my reading progress at times. Especially when the text explored the elements of theological elements such as the nature of heresy, the poverty of Christ, the relationship between the Pope and the Emperor, etc., I felt myself get bogged down a bit. Part of me wanted to skip over these moments...but a larger part of me was so interested that I plowed through, not always understanding, but always intrigued. Apart from these slower historical moments, there were also a few significant sections of the book that were similarly slowing to my progress...Adso's dream/vision/nightmare and Jorge's sermon. Each of these had elements that were important to the plot but were also somewhat heavy in historical and theological detail (albeit obscure and strange to a layman such as myself).

In spite of the slowdowns which made this book take a little longer to read, I really enjoyed the book in terms of all of the elements Eco mentioned...the story/plot itself, the intertextual elements and the historical/theological commentary. The book is a very interesting read and a very well crafted murder mystery with plenty of bizarre and intriguing twists and turns. Even though some of the historical/theological segments may be a bit daunting at times, I recommend taking the time to read this book.

4 out of 5 stars

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Brian Miller said...

this is an excellent book...i read it about 18 years ago for the first time then read it again a couple years back...

Okie said...

There are only a handful of books that I feel compelled to re-read (and yet, I still have shelves full of tons of books I've read once and won't likely re-read but keep because I enjoyed them).

But this is one I can see myself returning to. There is just so much meat on it and it's a truly engaging read.

Holly Ruggiero said...

I've heard such great things about this book and author.

Buonarotti said...

The most obvious intertextual reference to Borges is to his Library of Babel. You may read this short tale in an afternoon and then find yourself reflecting on its images and conundra at odd moments through the rest of your life.

Okie said...

Thanks for the recommendation Buonarotti. I'll have to check it out. :)