Murder in the Monastery?

The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 502 pp., $15.95

Signs on a white field by Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician and now novelist as well, bring us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to the year 1327. The preface would have us believe that in 1968 Eco was handed a translation, made in 1842 by a French abbé, of a fourteenth-century Latin manuscript by a Benedictine monk, one Adso of Melk. Adso has a horrible history to tell, of murderous doings ending in “ecpyrosis” in a Benedictine monastery near the Apennines. These deeds are elaborately crisscrossed by the factions and schisms of the time. Eco would probably say that the structure is closed rather than open, as befits a medieval situation, and certainly his book hangs tightly and conclusively together. It is not the less strange for that.

The Name of the Rose succeeds in being amusing and ambitious at the same time. It can be regarded as a philosophical novel masked as a detective story, or as a detective story masked as a historical novel, or even better as a blend of all three. The venture sounds improbable, but Eco carries it out. Though his previous books have often been technical contributions to semiotics, he has written well about such writers as Ian Fleming, Eugène Sue, and James Joyce, as well as about such subjects as the Superman comic strip. New to the novelist’s business, he is thoroughly in control. His title would seem to be explained by the final sentence in which Adso, years after the events described, writes, “I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.” Un Latined, this seems to mean that he offers the thing itself and not the interpretation. The rose is a rose in all its being and name; as for us, in a fallen and later time, we hear only empty names.

This is not the only use of Latin in the book; some of its flavor comes from a sporadic interfusion of such phrases, most of them quickly paraphrased though this one is not. The Name of the Rose is delineated in seven days, as if to suggest some medieval version of the unities, based upon the days of creation. These seven days are in their turn divided into sections based upon the canonical hours. Eco offers two diagrams almost as elaborate as those that appear in his works on semiotics. One is of the monastery itself, an imposing edifice; the other is of the library, which is planned as a labyrinth. He also affords us the teasing pleasure of a code based upon the zodiacal figures.

What Adso has to tell is unexpected. He is a bumbling, sobersided, pietistic Dr. Watson, and he accompanies a Franciscan monk from England, William of Baskerville. William’s mission is to negotiate between the emperor, Louis IV, and that dubious pope John XXII (whose name no other pope would take until the twentieth century …

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Letters

Absolution October 13, 1983