Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

HARDCOVER; 557 P.
TRANS. AIRA BUFFA
WSOY, 1983/1980
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

From Goodreads:

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the empirical insights of Roger Bacon – all sharpened to a glistening edge by wry humor and a ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where “the most interesting things happen at night.”

I began reading The Name of the Rose already at the end of 2014, but because I was reading the German translation my pace was really slow. So after about 60 pages I decided to switch into the Finnish translation and consequently start from the beginning. Umberto Eco is an Italian author and a professor of semiotics, and his debut novel, The Name of the Rose, became an instant bestseller soon after it was published in the 1980s.

The Name of the Rose is set in a Benedictine monastery somewhere in Northern Italy in 1327. The story is narrated by Adson of Melk, who as an old monk records the experience he had as a young novice travelling with the Franciscan monk William Baskerville. Brother William has been asked to mediate between the Franciscans and Dominicans, who are divided about the question of wealth in Church. However, as he arrives to the Benedictine monastery that has been chosen as the meeting ground for the two parties, he is asked to investigate a mysterious death of a monk. The monastery is famous for hosting one of the largest libraries of the Western world, and as more bodies begin to turn up, it seems that mysterious library has a part to play in the mystery. Woven around the historical murder mystery, The Name of the Rose also features wide political, religious and scientific debates of the Middle Ages.

I remember watching the film adaptation (with Sean Connery as William Baskerville) with my family a few years back, and their exasperated sighs of “The book was SO much better”. Thus I was aware of what the story was about, but had luckily forgotten the “whodunnit”. As I mentioned, I read the beginning of the book in German and the whole book in Finnish, and though there were a lot of good things about the Finnish translation, I did have some issues with the stylistic choices (rant here). Nevertheless, for me the most important part of The Name of the Rose was not the accurate historical setting nor the mystery, but the actual debates. The book challenged my worldviews and prompted me to think about the issues also in modern context. For example, the debate about laughter and jesting in relation to religion made me view the news on the Paris attacks in a different light.

For all its merits, The Name of the Rose is, however, not without a fault. The author tends to describe things with overly long lists and there are occasional cases of information overload. Popularising scientific studies into a mystery novel without making it too fact-heavy is hard, and I applaud Eco’s attempt. The combination of medieval studies, biblical analysis, literary theory and a murder mystery is very unique, and as I read on, I really immersed myself in the time period. The occasional quotes in Latin did sometimes break the spell, as I had to flip to the back to see the translation, but they also provided the sense and style of the time. The main character is very Sherlockian in his deduction (as the name suggests), but not overly detached. The Name of the Rose might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy a good historical fiction that doesn’t dumb down the information, I’d very highly recommend that you pick this up. It is also a book about books, so for all the bibliophiles out there – look this up.

4.5/5

“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

  1. I’ve been waiting for this review to show up!!
    In fact I’ve bought the book because of you.I always dismissed it as an ancient version of Da Vinci code,but when I saw that you were reading it,I checked it once again on goodreads and saw mentions of Aristotle,Aquinas,etc.
    I also was aware that Ecco was heavily influenced by Borges,one of my favourite authors,so I ended up buying it! 🙂
    4.5/5? Can’t wait to read it!!

    • Oh no, The Name of the Rose is MUCH better than Da Vinci code! But I’m happy to hear that you looked it up again and bought yourself a copy 🙂 I found out about the Borges influence only after I’d finished the book, but it definitely made me more curious about reading Borges!

  2. Wow, in 2 translations? I can’t even finish this novel in English! It’s very interesting but it’s so wordy that I get lost in the narration that by the end of it, I’ve forgotten what he was talking about in the beginning. I’ve tried reading this around 3 times, but I always end up quitting. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to finish it.

    • Oh no, that came out wrong! I meant that I read the beginning in both languages, but the rest only in Finnish translation. I fixed the part so that it’s now clearer (hopefully). But yes, especially in the beginning the narration can be a bit hard to follow – maybe you could watch the film adaptation first and then try to read the book?

    • Oh wow, that’s definitely something to remember! I agree that it is a tad too long, but then again, I don’t really know what could be cut away from it without ruining the coherence 😀

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