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). William bears some resemblance to his compatriot and friend, William of Ockham, as he whets his razor on the redundant frenzies of his contemporaries. He has been an inquisitor, but a merciful one, inclined to suspect the arraigners as much as the arraigned. He has some resemblance also to Umberto Eco, having a similar skill in codes—a semiotician of the fourteenth century. And, as his origin in Baskerville hints, William makes one in a distinguished line of detectives.
On arrival at the monastery his first act is to tell the monks where to find a lost horse, which he identifies by name and appearance. Since he has never seen or heard of the animal before, they have reason to be impressed. Their abbot thereupon asks William’s help in ferreting out the secret of a recent unfortunate occurrence. A monk has fallen dead by the monastery wall. Was it murder or suicide? The question leads William deep into the politics and personalities of the monastery, and deep also into the complications of fourteenth-century theology.
To Eco’s credit, these are clarified rapidly, and we do not have to learn more about them than we want to know. The Franciscans are sharply divided into Zealots or Spirituals on the one hand and moderates on the other. The first would follow, the second mitigate, the teachings on poverty of St. Francis. Several of the monks have belonged in the past to heretical splinter groups, and a few have been involved in homosexual practices. It becomes clear that the first monk has died in a fit of sexual remorse, but the four other deaths that take place during the seven days do not yield to easy explanation.
Yet while the murders are the principal source of suspense, intertwined with them are two other themes. One begins when William inspects the illuminations made in the margins of manuscripts by the first of the dead monks. Instead of being merely reverent, they offer a mirror world in which everything is topsy-turvy. Fish prey on gulls, dogs flee before hares, monkeys have stags’ horns, the earth is up and the heavens down. William takes great pleasure in this kind of art, and defends it on the grounds that witticisms and plays on words and things are instruments to reveal truth. They cause one to speculate in new ways. So laughter is essential. He is overheard by an old blind monk, Jorge of Burgos, who violently disagrees. Christ never laughed, says Jorge; only the Antichrist laughs because laughs sow doubts.
The debate goes beyond theory as it becomes clear that Jorge is viciously resolved to curb laughter and those who indulge in it. William, in the course of defending laughter and pursuing the murderer, learns that the monastery has a copy of Aristotle’s lost book on comedy. His quest for this book becomes almost as important as his criminal detection. For Jorge this book of Aristotle’s is an ultimate heresy, bound to cause havoc if it gets into William’s hands. He rips out the pages and eats them, knowing that he has poisoned their edges and so will become the book’s tomb. By now it is manifest that Jorge, in his arrogance of spirit, is at one with the Devil, and it seems appropriate that Aristotle should poison Antichrist. William sums up the matter for Adso: “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” This recognition comes simultaneously with the solution of the mysterious deaths and the dissolution—by fire—of the monastery and its labyrinthine library.
All this is conveyed by Eco with brio and irony. He has gone to school to the best models, Borges among them, and he has a delightful humor for which William and the lost book of Aristotle offer justifications. Though the disputations start off as medieval, they end up as modern. Adso, a German by birth, claims that he cannot read Dante’s new poem because it is written in “vulgar Tuscan,” but he covertly quotes it, as he covertly quotes Joyce. William Weaver’s translation brings out the eloquence of the original. Eco’s book has had a considerable vogue in Europe, and it deserves one in the US as well.
July 21, 1983