The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

by R.C.


Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was on my radar for a while; I’m not sure you can do an English degree without hearing his name mentioned at least once. Which is not a particularly surprising fact, considering the great reach of his abilities: philosophy, semiotics, novel-writing. He’s done it all, and I hear he’s done it well. All this, and more, made me very acutely aware when I started reading The Name of the Rose that it was A Difficult Read. And that it is; even Eco himself has said, “probably I am writing for masochists.” The novel is erudite and complex, but it’s also enchanting, thought provoking and exciting. It has all the best qualities of any great murder mystery, alongside the delightful ingenuity and thoughtful exploration and defining postmodern novel. So, while The Name of the Rose is A Difficult Read, it’s also A Great Read.

The plot follows a Benedictine novice, Adso of Melk, and his mentor, William of Baskerville, as they investigate the deaths of several monks in an abbey in Northern Italy. William is a sort of 14th century Sherlock Holmes, with piercing powers of logic and deduction, who becomes the perfect instrument for Eco’s exploration of symbols and meaning. Throw in a forbidden labyrinthine library, a guy who can speak only in a language compiled entirely of broken pieces of different tongues, and discussions on the subversive powers of laughter, and The Name of the Rose quickly becomes a Saussurean wet-dream.

Eco’s novel is searingly clever, elegant and well executed. It’s a long read, that is difficult at times, but it is more than worth persevering.

Top line: “There are words that give power, others that make us all the more derelict, and to this latter category belong the vulgar words of the simple, to whom the Lord has not granted the boon of self-expression in the universal tongue of knowledge and power.”

You won’t find elsewhere: Anything quite like it. An ending that comes together so satisfyingly, and perfectly, on all levels.

Low point: It takes a little while to get used to the narrative pace of this one. It can seem long-winded and difficult if you don’t sit back and enjoy the philosophical, theological and critical discussions.