Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

PAPERBACK; 368 P.
PENGUIN BOOKS, 2013/1949
SOURCE: PURCHASED

Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

George Orwell became one of my favourite authors of last year as I read and absolutely loved Animal Farm. Sharing my love of Orwell, I quickly received several recommendations to read 1984 – the book that notoriously launched the concept of Big Brother. Despite my interest in reading more Orwell, it took me some time get around reading 1984. I bought my copy – the cleverly designed Penguin paperback – in January, read the first 50 pages in March before putting the book down, and eventually picked it up five months later. The book is not a particularly chunky or dull one, but in order to fully enjoy it’s complexity, it definitely requires time and concentration – neither of which I had back in March.

The story of 1984 centers around a young-ish man, Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth revising the history records to match the current ideology. The political system in power is called English Socialism – IngSoc in Newspeak– and it’s run by the omnious, never-seen-but-always-present Big Brother. The society at large controls every action of the lives of its members from exercising to family planning, focusing on eliminating all actions that go against the current regime. Even expressing wrong kinds of thoughts is considered a crime. Winston just is a plain cog in the system, but he nevertheless feels nerved by the constant controlling. His nightmares consist of distant memories, but he doesn’t understand how things came to be as they are.

1984 is utterly brilliant, cynical, astonishing and truly mind-boggling. If you have the energy to let your imagination run wild with the concepts that Orwell presents in this book, the end results are both rewarding and frightening. Orwell’s dystopia is poignant even today, which is quite a feat considering how much the world has changed since 1940s. I am in awe of George Orwell for creating such a meticulous but yet completely comprehensible system of government, and the way with which he constructed this novel. It is a classic for a reason. Although the novel’s central themes are censorship and restricting individuality, my favourite part of the novel were the passages from “The Book” – but maybe that’s just the Political Studies student in me. As a language student, the linguistic aspect of the story was also fascinating; how controlling the language that we use can also shift how we think and act. Also, to which point can you simplify language?

The story of 1984 is not among the most action-packed ones, but the slow build-up truly packs a punch in the end. It’s a thought-provoking noveI like no other. I think I can now confidently say that Orwell is one of my favourite authors of all time. However, I must admit that I still prefer Animal Farm over 1984. I highly recommended 1984 to all citizens of the planet Earth, especially those who enjoy dystopian literature.

5/5

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

PAPERBACK; 367 P.
PENGUIN CLASSICS, 1994/1859
SOURCE: PURCHASED

From Goodreads:

It was the time of the French Revolution — a time of great change and great danger. It was a time when injustice was met by a lust for vengeance, and rarely was a distinction made between the innocent and the guilty. Against this tumultuous historical backdrop, Dickens’ great story of unsurpassed adventure and courage unfolds.
Unjustly imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille, Dr. Alexandre Manette is reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and safely transported from France to England. It would seem that they could take up the threads of their lives in peace. As fate would have it though, the pair are summoned to the Old Bailey to testify against a young Frenchman — Charles Darnay — falsely accused of treason. Strangely enough, Darnay bears an uncanny resemblance to another man in the courtroom, the dissolute lawyer’s clerk Sydney Carton. It is a coincidence that plays a vital role as the story unfolds. Brilliantly plotted, A Tale of Two Cities is rich in drama, romance, and heroics that culminate in a daring prison escape in the shadow of the guillotine.

Aside from Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceA Tale of Two Cities has one of the most quoted first sentences:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

And if you’ve read the book, you know that the ending is no less memorable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Charles Dickens is one of my favourite authors and before starting this book blog, I had read Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickelby and Bleak House. I try to read at least one of his novel a year and last year it was A Christmas Carol. A Tale of Two Cities might not be considered as Dickens’ most renowned novel, but it’s definitely one of the most popular ones. The combination of history, excitement, and beautiful prose also make it very readable.

A Tale of Two Cities begins with an journey from London to Paris where an old man, Dr. Manette, is reunited with his daughter Lucie. This reunion is arranged by Mr. Lorry, a gentleman of the Bank, but during their return to London the group becomes unknowingly involved in the fate of a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay. As the father and daughter are set to testify against the treason accusation against Mr. Darnay, the connection is once again refreshed and gradually develops into friendship. However, a deeper, hidden connection lies between the old man’s unjust imprisonment and the young man. In the meanwhile, the air of Paris is simmering with discontent as the poor are grow hungry. The spark of a revolution is relatively easy to ignite, but like fire, it cannot always be contained.

First of all, I have to gush about the way Dickens manipulates language in A Tale of Two Cities. It is amazing, wonderful, sublime, enticing, comforting, harrowing and riotous. I’ve usually considered Dickens to be more of a plot- and character-based writer whose forte is characterisation. However, this time I was almost instantly enthralled by the language of the novel. I don’t know if it’s a specific aspect of A Tale of Two Cities or if I’ve just grown more attune to beautiful writing, but the way the sentences flow and the imagery is presented just stunned me. The story itself is also fascinating as it gave me new insight to the French Revolution, and I think Dickens’ intention was partly to remind people that despite the beautiful ideals behind the Revolution – Liberté, égalité, fraternité –, the revolution itself involved lots of violence and cruelty from both sides. A Tale of Two Cities is said to be one of Dickens’ more depressing novels, and its portrayal of cruelty is oddly juxtaposed by the stunning use of language; similar juxtaposing is present in the first sentence of the novel. This balance – or should I say imbalance – only occurred to me only after I had finished the book, but it’s made me view the novel in a new light.

I believe A Tale of Two Cities is/has been mandatory reading for many, but if you haven’t read it, I’d highly suggest you do so. It’s also one of Dickens’ most accessible novels, making it a great place to start with him (another one being A Christmas Carol). Also recommended to people who want to know more about the French Revolution. A Tale of Two Cities has beautiful language, historical interest, and a mixture of mystery, romance, and comedy à la Charles Dickens. It’s now one of my favourites.

5/5 

Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone.

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

HARDCOVER, 335 P.
RIVERHEAD BOOKS, 2007
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú–the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim–until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.

With dazzling energy and insight, Junot Díaz immerses us in the  uproarious lives of our hero Oscar, his runaway sister Lola, and their ferocious beauty-queen mother Belicia, and in the family’s epic journey from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to New Jersey’s Bergenline and back again. Rendered with uncommon warmth and humor, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and the endless human capacity to persevere–and to risk it all–in the name of love.

A true literary triumph, this novel confirms Junot Díaz as one of the  best and most exciting writers of our time.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Junot Díaz’s first novel published in 2007, although he had ten years previously gained fame with his short story collection Drown. The book topped BBC’s Greatest Novels of the 21st Century list and it has been praised and recommended to me by many people that I admire, which is why I decided to pick it up during my library visit in March. However, the timing was a bit off, so it took me until May to finally start reading. And I’m glad I did because it is an immersive experience to the bone. You think you know what it is about, but you have no idea.

Let me tell you about the main character Oscar. First of all, his last name is not Wao – the name was given to him in jest in college and it stuck. Oscar de León grew up in New Jersey, in a neighbourhood consisting of mostly immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Growing up, Oscar and his older sister Lola quickly learn what is expected from them as Dominicans and as those lucky enough to be born in the U.S. Their mother Belicia had to fight for her way and despite being in the past known as Santo Domingo’s beauty queen, she now works two jobs to support her children. Oscar himself is quite the anti-hero: he’s an overweight, nerdy boy of colour in the contemporary US ghetto dreaming of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien. Lola is the family rebel: she rebels against the her mother and the expectations of the society around her. And back in her youth, Beli too rebelled against the curse of her family, the wishes of her aunt and her status as a child of the a powerful doctor who lost it all.

What first stood out to me in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was the use of language. Díaz mixes Spanish and English, academic and slang, and tops it off with a heavy dose of fantasy and comic references that all together bring humor and compassion to the story. For example, in describing Trujillo the narrator notes: “Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor” whereas Oscar is known to have “a zero combat rating”. The vivacious voice of the book was, at least for me, new and exciting. I’ve never studied Spanish, so my knowledge of the language is based on what I’ve heard from TV or other people. Hence a lot of the words thrown in were unfamiliar to me. Nevertheless, I did’t feel that this was slowing down my reading experience – once you get the sense of the expression, the words don’t matter.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao maps the history of each of the de León family members, narrated by a person who’s identity remains unknown to the reader until towards the end of the book. Oscar’s contemporary struggles are placed against the backdrop of the ill-fated family and the dark days of Dominican Repulic. The timeline jumps back and forth in time building the story like a jigsaw puzzle – piece by piece you start to see some figures/themes emerging from the miscellaneous pile. One of the main characters in the story, aside from the De León family, is the Dominican Republic. The history of the country under the tyrannical ruler Rafael Leónidas Trujillo is explored in many of the footnotes that the narrator uses and through the fates of the individuals, the entire population gets a voice. My knowledge of the Dominican Republic quadrupled by simply reading this book. Another interesting element in the story is the explanation to the bad luck running in the family, the imbalance between fukú (a curse) and zafa (a blessing). The age-old beliefs circle from ancestors to the contemporary lives and give the story a twist of magical realism. For though the events can be explained with facts, the magic still feels real.

I can highly recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to readers who want to diversify their reading and to find new voices. Although Oscar Wao didn’t completely wow me, the voice and the narrative structure of the story are very distinct and memorable. It is a book that is bound to stay fresh in my mind and that has enriched my idea of the “American experience”.

4/5

Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s Be Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you got out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and women.

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

PAPERBACK; 309 P.
ARROW BOOKS, 2010/1960
SOURCE: PURCHASED

‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much. To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an anti-racist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those big classics of American literature that almost everyone has read. Many studied it in school but still consider it as one of their favourite books, which is no small feat. A story of race, 1930’s Great Depression, and double standards, the book explores the lives of a small town through the eyes of a young Scout. The historically pressing time reveals some ugly truths even from the nicest of people and although a lot has changed, the story still remains current. And even more current the novel is now that the sequel, Go Set a Watchman, will be published 55 years after the classic.

The story of To Kill a Mockingbird centers around the Finch family living in Maycombe, Alabama. Scout, real name Jean Louise, is a young and active girl who enjoys playing games with her older brother Jem and other boys, and presents questions about illogical adult behaviour to her father Atticus. Atticus Finch earns his living as a lawyer, and especially in questions of right and wrong, the discussions between the two often have multiple layers. Next door to the Finches lives the Radley family that intrigues the children because unlike all the others in their neighbourhood, the Radleys keep to themselves and wild rumours fly about their grown-up son Boo. Despite orders from Atticus to stop harassing the family the children go to all lengths to lure Boo Radley out of his house. In the mean time, the town is in an uproar because an African American man is charged with the rape of a white girl and Atticus is set on defending him. And in a town as small as Maycombe, the case comes to influence all areas of life.

The depth and scope of To Kill a Mockingbird truly makes it a classic. Harper Lee’s novel not only tackles the train of thoughts and the underlying racism of the Southern society, but also goes to show it from the perspective of a child trying to learn the rules of the society. The book is a coming-of-age novel in which it isn’t the narrator who grows up and looses the idealism and innocence, but her brother and how that affects the family dynamic. In fact, the innocence of the child narrator somehow manages to underline just how terrible the injustices are, but also how illogical and strange the adults can be. Aside from the Finch family, the book is filled with characters and storylines that would all require a paragraph of their own, especially the mysterious Boo Radley. This being the first time that I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was surprised by the direction that the story took despite having a hunch of the court decision. And like many before me, I too fell in love with Atticus Finch. He is a curious mix of detachment and deep-rooted morals. Through Scout’s perceptive eyes, she also reveals the follies of grown-ups with their ridiculous games and politics. Although I didn’t personally connect with Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m very intrigued to meet her as a grown-up woman in Go Set a Watchman. I can definitely see why To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic and it is definitely one of the books that I hope to re-read in a few years. So if you haven’t yet picked up this Southern classic, I cannot but highly recommend it. And if you have, maybe revisit it in preparation for GSaW?

4.5/5

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Review: Maa on syntinen laulu by Timo K. Mukka (Eng. The Earth is a Sinful Song)

HARDCOVER; 229 P.
GUMMERUS, 2013/1964
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly. 

Timo K. Mukka’s exquisite debut novel is like a ballad – startling and beautiful in its coarseness. The story follows Martta, a young woman, and a small village in Lapland where people are torn between feverish religiousness and strong sexual instincts. Martta falls is love with a Sami reindeer herder and their brief and unconventional love story is described in a way that is rough and naturalistic but at the same time very lyrical. Against the backdrop of the powerful and extreme nature of Lapland and the depressing life of a closed community. The religious fervour and the oppressing atmosphere of the homestead create a tough opposition for Martta’s love story.

Timo K. Mukka (1944–1973) published his debut novel at the tender age of 19. The reception of the novel was crushing as the strong descriptions of the sexual and religious acts were too much for the readers at the time. The attitudes of the media and the readers remained conflicted throughout Mukka’s career and the appreciation for his works began rising only after his early death. Nowadays Timo K. Mukka is considered one the most influential Finnish writers of his time.

Having lived some years in the northern Finland, you cannot avoid hearing the name of Timo K. Mukka. Mukka lived most of his life in northern Finland and many of his novels are also set in there. However, although his reputation still lives on, he is not a novelist whose works are particularly read or appreciated. In that sense, there is a clear divide between the readers in northern Finland and in southern Finland, where Mukka’s influence is stronger. As for me, I probably would not have picked up The Earth is Sinful Song for a long while if it were not for the TBR 274 list. The blurb and the themes don’t really appeal to me that much and it was only because of the cover and some reviews praising his unique writing style that I decided to give this novel a try.

The Earth is a Sinful Song describes the people living in a small village in northern Lapland in the 1940s. The main character Martta is a young woman approaching adulthood and the book follows her journey of coming to terms with her sexuality and the realities of marriage in a small, close-knit community. Mixed in to the story are the relationship of her parents, the angry and sickly mother, the father who alternates between heavy drinking and hard working, and the old man who keeps a close eye on everyone. The life in the community revolves around two opposing issues: alcohol and religion, both of which include a hefty dose of sexual acts. When Martta sets her heart on the disreputable reindeer herder, she has to deal with the reactions from both her family as well as her nosy neighbours.

The writing reflects the dialect of the region which sets the story on the context of Lapland in the 1940s. Most of the time the story felt light-years away from modern day and it made it very hard for me to understand the actions of the characters. The praised style of writing was great, and I adored the short snippets of the melody that was strewn between chapters – if only the rest had been as mystical as that I would have given it five stars regardless of the plot. In the end, The Earth is a Sinful Song however was not to my taste and I found myself occasionally very alienated from the book. I understand the controversy as well as the novelty of the book, but the crudeness was a bit too much for me personally. It made the point it was trying, but in no way was it in good taste. Keeping all this in mind, I still very much appreciated how the book challenged me as a reader – it pushed me outside of my comfort zone and made me view things from a different perspective. For that reason solely, I would recommend The Earth is a Sinful Song as an example of experimental and modernist Finnish fiction. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll be taking on any of Timo K. Mukka’s other books any time soon. A very conflicting read.

3/5

kirjanvuosi15

Review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

EBOOK; 183 P.
AMAZON MEDIA, 2012/1883
SOURCE: PURCHASED

The most popular pirate story ever written in English, featuring one of literature’s most beloved “bad guys,” Treasure Island has been happily devoured by several generations of boys—and girls—and grownups. Its unforgettable characters include: young Jim Hawkins, who finds himself owner of a map to Treasure Island, where the fabled pirate booty is buried; honest Captain Smollett, heroic Dr. Livesey, and the good-hearted but obtuse Squire Trelawney, who help Jim on his quest for the treasure; the frightening Blind Pew, double-dealing Israel Hands, and seemingly mad Ben Gunn, buccaneers of varying shades of menace; and, of course, garrulous, affable, ambiguous Long John Silver, a one-legged sea-cook . . . and more!

The unexpected and complex relationship that develops between Silver and Jim helps transform what seems at first to be a simple, rip-roaring adventure story into a deeply moving study of a boy’s growth into manhood, as he learns hard lessons about friendship, loyalty, courage and honor—and the uncertain meaning of good and evil.

Treasure Island is one of those children’s classics that manage to thrill year after year. One of the most read pirate stories, it features a cast that will haunt you for better and for worse. Despite having read a lot of the classic children’s tales already as a child, this was my first time reading Stevenson’s book.

Treasure Island begins when a strange sea-farer lodges into a small family owned inn. The young son of the family, Jim Hawkins, follows this strange man who seems to believe he’s haunted by a man with a peg-leg. The family is almost convinced of his lunacy, until one day a blind man stops into the inn and delivers the seaman a black spot. The events that are kicked into motion from there take young Jim on a quest for a true treasure as he and and his friends take the sails to find the mysterious Treasure Island.

When I picked up Treasure Island, I expected to find an exciting but maybe a bit dull or simple story about a young boy sailing to find a pirate treasure. And in a way, that’s what Treasure Island is in an essence. It is the wildest dream of every kid, to sail with adults and prove yourself worthy and to out-wit the pirates. However, what made the story so enjoyable was Stevenson’s engaging way of writing. The book is a fast-paced adventure that is sure to set your imagination running wild and your mind thirsting for adventure. Sure, it falls into some of the children’s adventure story tropes, but damned if I didn’t wish that I’d read this as a child. I read Dr. Jekyl and Mister Hyde many years ago, but now I think I’ll have to revisit it to see how I’d feel about it now. If you haven’t already read Treasure Island, I definitely recommend that you do so – even if only for the child-like excitement that it brings – and if you have children and/or younger siblings, read this to them.

4/5

“For thirty years,” he said, “I’ve sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views—amen, so be it.”

Review: Punainen viiva by Ilmari Kianto (Eng. The Red Line)

HARDCOVER; 174 P.
OTAVA, 1970/1909
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly. 

Ilmari Kianto’s (1874–1970) The Red Line was published in 1909 and depicts the time of the first universal and equal vote in Finland in the beginning of 20th century. The story is set in the rural community of Eastern Finland and it centers around a couple, Topi and Riikka, who try to understand the unravelling events of the approaching vote and the promises of social change that it might bring. The novel offers an insightful look into the minds of the poorer classes of the early 20th century and its characters have settled their place in the literary canon of Finland. This edition features the cover that was designed for the first edition, but never used due to the strong controversy of the topic.

For a long time The Red Line was a title that I instantly recognised as one of the Finnish classics but had no idea what the book was about. And had it not been for a paper that I’m currently writing, it would have stayed so for a few more years. Because of the political issues discussed in the book and the fact that it was published only two years after the first universal vote, it was considered rather controversial.

The Red Line begins with a beautiful description of the forest in the autumn, from the perspective of a great bear. As the bear falls into hibernation, we enter the small cottage of Topi and Riikka Romppainen and their small children who prepare for the upcoming winter with the dread that what they have might not be enough. As the winter sets in, their fears are realised and Topi has to travel to the closest village to sell some of their valuables to buy food for the family. However, as he arrives to the village, he is struck by the notion that something strange is afoot. The workers and farmers are holding meetings and reading the paper aloud. Topi is soon told that an election is arriving and there is a rumour that, for once, the poor will have a voice. When Topi return home, Riikka dismisses the news as village gossip but is soon proved wrong as politics comes knocking on their own door. As winter turns into spring the visitors of the small cottage tell of change that could turn their world upside down.

SO SO GOOD. This book had me hooked from the very beginning and I couldn’t believe I had ever not wanted to read it. The Red Line seems to have everything: complex narration, symbolism, beautiful description of nature, interesting language, heart-wrenching story but with an occasional glint in the eye. The red line of the title symbolises the voting process in which voters had to draw a line next to the candidate that they were voting for – with a red pencil. Simply reading about the two main characters anxiously preparing for this moment, the moment of drawing the line, was at the same time so strange and so empowering. The author has truly captured something very pure and raw about the people and the time. The Red Line isn’t a historical document per se, but it provides an insight to the history of Finland in a way that opened my eyes. In order to catch the references, you do need to understand the history of Finnish independence, but I’m sure it could also be read without the background information. The Red Line is definitely one of my new favourites! So if you ever do have the chance to read this, please do!

5/5

The day of the red line was fast approaching. The printing machines pounded on and on. Red letters whisked like fiery dragons across the country; biting till blood, lighting the spirit aflame.

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.”