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Review: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Houghton Mifflin, 2014 [1980, 1983] 579 pp. $16

As Brother William of Baskerville, an English Franciscan monk, nears the Italian abbey where he’s to attend a conclave, he correctly deduces from tracks in the snow and other minute details that the party of brethren approaching him on the road are seeking a horse — whose name he also guesses. Naturally, this astonishes both the search party and William’s companion, his scribe, a German novice named Adso. It also pleases the abbot, who’s delighted to have so keen an observer on hand, because a young monk has died under suspicious circumstances, and the mystery must be solved before the conclave takes place in a few days’ time.

Or, to be precise, the abbot seems pleased, but the readily apparent struggle between truth and expediency dividing the abbey’s occupants, heightened by the anticipated high-level meeting, clouds his motives. The year is 1327, and the church is fighting itself, with one pope in Rome, and the other in Avignon. The expected French envoys — and, menacingly, their accompanying armed force — include a charismatic, unscrupulous inquisitor whom William knows and fears; he was once an inquisitor himself but gave it up because he felt the entire process of hunting heretics was irrational and unjust. Since then, he has openly avowed the empirical philosophy of Roger Bacon and William Occam (he of the famous razor), beliefs that unsettle many other monks and, in their eyes, skate dangerously close to heresy.

Pope John XXII, a protégé of the French crown, lived a princely life in Avignon and opposed the Franciscan doctrine of poverty (image by an unknown nineteenth-century painter; courtesy Palais des Papes, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, the abbot has forbidden William to investigate the library stacks, labyrinthine rooms that no one save the librarian himself may enter. This restriction cripples William’s efforts, particularly after more monks die, and he supposes that a hidden text holds the key. So, with Adso in tow, he invades the abbey’s sanctum sanctorum, with ever-startling results.

Adso makes a superb narrator and foil, a Watson scared of where knowledge will lead, to William’s Holmes, who thinks knowledge itself can be neither good nor evil. A weighty theme, and The Name of the Rose tips the scales at almost 600 pages, but Eco does a brilliant job focusing on two issues that, at first glance, seem too ridiculous to kill for, whether for personal motives, to serve the church, or for reasons of state. First, did Christ ever laugh? And second, did he and his apostles choose poverty, the belief on which the Franciscan order rests?

But the narrative, if at length, shows why these questions matter in 1327 and today. If Christ did not laugh, the official reasoning goes, satire, jokes, and humor are either vile, a threat to faith, or both. However, William argues that if a devout person must have only a certain sober, humorless mind, then the inquisitors rule, as in fact they do, and the crucial precept of accepting faith through free will ceases to exist. As William warns Adso, “The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. 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.”

The question of poverty has a more immediate political implication. The Franciscan order has splintered, prompting rebellions against church power, to which the church has responded by burning heretics, charging the use of magic, and accusing their opponents of free love and appalling butchery. But as William tells Adso, the rebels don’t care about church doctrines, especially; they resent the extreme wealth of the church and the regimes it supports, both of which contribute to keep the poor as they are.

Amid all this, monks continue to die, and William must divert his efforts from solving the mystery to play politician during the conclave, standing up for his beliefs while avoiding condemnation. As you may have figured out by now (how did I give it away?), The Name of the Rose is a discursive book, but no less mesmerizing for that:

The creature behind us was apparently a monk, though his torn and dirty habit made him look like a vagabond. Unlike many of my brothers, I have never in my whole life been visited by the Devil; but I believe that if he were to appear to me one day, he would have the very features of our interlocutor. His head was hairless, not shaved in penance but as the result of the past action of some viscid eczema; the brow was so low that if he had had hair on his head it would have mingled with his eyebrows (which were thick and shaggy); the eyes were round, with tiny mobile pupils, and whether the gaze was innocent or malign I could not tell: perhaps it was both, in different moods, in flashes.

The Name of the Rose does what the best historical fiction should: illuminate the past by its own lights and therefore reveal the present. As a mystery, it is excellent; to that, add profundity and power.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.