Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose is a long, complex novel that is not easy to get into. At least it wasn’t for me. First of all, it sat on my shelf for years after I bought it at a library sale. When I finally got around to reading it, I managed around forty pages before I was hit with a description of a church door that went on for four or five or six pages. I couldn’t get past all the miniscule details and put the book aside for something more accessible. Fast forward to the pandemic, and with the library closed and my being unable to afford to buy books, I have been scouring my shelves for reading material. This time I struggled past the intricacies of the church door and kept going.

The book is set in a monastery in the fourteenth century. A Franciscan monk named Brother William and his assistant Adso, a Benedictine novice and the book’s narrator, arrive to await a delegation from Pope John XXII. In the meantime, a monk has just died or been killed, and the abbot asks Brother William to investigate.

William is a sort of monk-robed version of Sherlock Holmes: brilliant, scholarly, and able to capitalize on the most obscure clues and references. The next day another monk is murdered, and in the following day another. William and Adso begin to uncover a convoluted plot centered in the monastery’s vast library, which lies within an intricate labyrinth on the top floor of a tower.

Eco’s references of labyrinths and the contents of obscure or imaginary books remind me of Jorge Luis Borges, the brilliant Argentine master of magic realism. In fact, Eco names one of the important characters in The Name of the Rose Jorge of Burgos in obvious homage to Borges. The difference is that Borges works his literary magic in succinct short stories, while Eco draws his tale out in over five hundred pages of details that, as I mentioned, are sometimes hard to intellectually power through. The first four hundred pages or so are comprised of an elaborate buildup, and it only comes together at the end as William puts all the disparate pieces of information he has accumulated together and solves the mystery. Reading the first four hundred pages or so can be frustrating and confusing. The overwhelming volume of intricate details that Eco introduces can be as dense at times as the thick fog that covers the monastery and its dark deeds.

The Name of the Rose is primarily an elaborate intellectual puzzle. As I was reading parts of it, I could imagine Eco gleefully writing away with tongue in cheek. The characters are so bound in their rituals, superstitions, doctrines, and loyalties to competing religious authorities that though they appear to be conversing with utmost sincerity, their utterances come off as laughably absurd. It’s impossible, for me at least, to know whether Eco based his tale on historical facts, or whether he made it all up as an elaborate fantasy, much as Borges in his stories invents books and authors and then presents them as undisputed authorities. Ultimately, except to a few die-hard scholars, it doesn’t matter. Whether historically based or not, the novel is in fact a fantasy in which a monastery, where the spirit of God is supposed to reside, instead becomes a cesspool of hellish intrigue.

Would I recommend the book? Sure, why not? As I said, if you can manage to power through it, there is a great payoff at the end. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll have to go through some intellectual heavy lifting to get there.

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4 Responses to Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

  1. Carol says:

    I read it a while ago and recall it being difficult but I ended up deeply appreciating the storyline as well as Eco’s writing. Several years later, someone gave me a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum. I was thrilled but I’ve started that one twice now and not been able to get into it. I’ve been assured that it’s excellent. It may be time to mount another attack.

  2. Lee McAulay says:

    My copy was second-hand too. I came to the book after falling in love with the film, with a warning from another reader that “Eco shows off” in his writing. Like you, I skipped parts.
    I’ve learned that some books need to be skimmed in places for the story to stay coherent… and I try not to make the same patterns in my own writing!

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