Thu, 26 Dec 2013
The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco.

I remember seeing the film of the book a very long time ago and loved it. Unusually for a cerebral film about medieval monks debating the fine points of theology and heresy, a lot of people seemed to like it as well and it did very well at the box office. I wish there were more films made like this. I've been wanting to read the book since then but put that thought aside until the film's influence waned Now that I've read it, I see how faithful an adaptation it was.

The book has great depth on various levels, as you would expect from Professor Eco. Perhaps the most superficial level is the detective novel, with nods to Conan Doyle in the name of the main protagonist, the English monk William of Baskerville. Although played with a broad Scottish accent in the film, Sean Connery was good in this role. Eco's prose is detailed and readable, although I have to admit to skipping over some passages fairly quickly, particularly the latter parts of Adso's mystical dream late in the book (and one or two others): a bit too long. I also wished I understood more latin, which figures regularly and is left untranslated. Wherever the monks hail from, whether Italy, Germany, Spain or England, they would be talking to each other in Latin of course, the lingua franca of the time.

As long ago as the film, I liked to submerge myself in a lot of history, including many books covering the history of Christianity and the Church, especially all the various debates on the canon. The question of the right teachings was of high importance in an age where literacy was uncommon and the "truth" something only the Church held. The spread of wrong teachings and heresy was something to guard against and watch out for at all times. The trial of the cellarer for heresy is a centrepiece in the novel and as horrific as it is fascinating. Through such scenes and the commentary and debate around them, Eco brings the medieval world to life: a world that was almost entirely centred around prayer, where religion was a matter of life (of the eternal variety) and death. The heart of the book revolves around the real debate over the Poverty of Christ, with the Franciscans fighting to save their order from charges of heresy and dissolution by the Catholic Church.

Within the church and religious communities, this sort of debate and tension has never really disappeared. Couple the theology with the investigation of a raft of murders and we have a unique book - hard going at times but a rewarding work.

A strange coincidence that I bought three books at the same time and they have some references to each other : Possession, by A. S. Byatt, a collection of stories by Jorge Luis Borges and this book (a beautiful hardback Everyman edition). Byatt mentions Eco's book in her introduction as showing it was possible to write a successful and intellectual book set in a medieval monastery. The writer David Lodge adds an introduction to Eco's book and highlights the debt paid to Borges in the novel (the Labyrinth, library, the monk Jorge de Burgos). I've yet to read Borges but am looking forward to it.