Book Review: The Name of the Rose

Not that he needs my approval or critique- I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco over the summer and completely forgot to do the review. He’s easily my favorite postmodern writer and he’s a jillion times smarted than me. The whole idea of a review is a little silly and pretentious- certainly not exahustive- but i’ve committed to doing this for every book i read. So here it is…

Some kwik facts: Fiction, first pub’d in 1980 in Italian, then translated into English in ’83, it was his first novel- and the only one made into a movie, now the circle is complete. Translators don’t get enough credit- this was masterfully done.

The Spoiler-Free Summary: It is the 14th century. A prestigious Abbey in (what is now) northern Italy is the site of an important summit of the Church and the Empire on a key issue. William, as moderator, arrives a few days early only to find that a murder has been committed. He is asked by the Abbot to investigate and solve the mystery before the convocation. We follow the story through the eyes of his assistant Adso, who asks William all the questions we’d like to be asking him.

The Good: Like Johnny Truant in House of Leaves, or Hugo Reyes in Lost, the use of Adso as an entry point for the reader /observer is helpful. I know that its supposed to be some kind of postmodern statement about the participatory nature of blah, blah, blah. But i think its just a helpful tool for the reader to become more involved in the story… to participate.

Its historic fiction- using major events and people from history as touch points, references and contextual markers.  The 14th century is largely unknown unless your some sort of scholar, though, and the problem of telling a story that doesn’t require scholarly readers is happily solved with one device- the abbey. The abbey is well chosen as the setting because the outer walls keep the story confined as if he knows he can’t go traipsing all over the countryside to tell his story. This works perfectly, of course, because abbeys and monasteries are largely committed to keeping things much the same for hunders of years at a time. There is not such a time-warp within a monastery.

Later work from Eco will go all over the world, but he keeps it close and establishes a beautiful routine within the pages. The daily life, the meals, the offices, the scriptorium, the stables, the well just outside the kitchen all become familiar, home-like and accessible. When bad stuff starts happening, the reader’s sense of security is rocked- not as much as the monks- such a great device. You want to be able to go back to compline without taking a headcount… you’ll see what i mean.

The Bad: Nearly identical to the Good, the bad part was Adso. Like his other stories, Eco has things to say and so he makes his characters say them. These are like little essays written into the book with quotation marks at the beginning and the end of the chapter so you think its part of the story. Its not a very good disguise. I don’t enjoy it one bit. For the record, he does this better and in a more integrated fashion than ol’ Melville- i put Moby Dick down because of the essays and refused to read the rest. At least Eco keeps on topic. Regardless, if you have something to say, i think the story itself can convey it and that essays are a, well, a cheat.

The Obscure Brilliance: Like the House of Leaves, or the Island in Lost, the labryinth becomes a central figure with much to say and do within the abbey and within the story. It really does hover over you and when you get to intereact with it, its very rewarding. Also, please submit your interpretation of what the Name of the Rose

The Bottom Line: Umberto Eco writes stories that i like to read. It’s not his best- its his first. Pretty awesome.

And: If you know where i can get a copy of the film, i’d love to see it.  It looks pretty funny.

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