Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Books That Grab Me: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose

I had never heard of Umberto Eco before I was a junior in college. Someone brought a VHS tape into a common room and shoved it into the video player. A movie came on. A few people groused because they were trying to do other things (I think someone was trying to find a dupe to give him a haircut with a pair of electric clippers he owned). Then the credits came on. Sean Connery. That quieted some folks. Plus a young, young Christian Slater. Plus F. Murray Abraham and the crazy old man who'd been the Mafia don in Prizzi's Honor. The person who brought the tape into the room just smiled the way a magician does before something wonderful happens. It was still loud in the room and people were doing about a half-dozen different things. But I started to watch the movie.

Not that I go out of my way to recommend the movie. It wasn't much of an adaptation of The Name of the Rose, but it did intrigue me enough to read the book a few weeks later. Wow. What a surprise.

The book is tangled and difficult and digressive, but in the center of it is a good, old fashioned bit of sleuthing.

An older monk takes a younger apprentice with him to a monastery for a set of religious meetings in Northern Italy, all set during a period of intense turmoil within the Catholic Church and the failing Holy Roman Empire. Of course, one has to suspect something might be up when the older monk's name is William of Baskerville, a nod to the most interesting case ever worked by another fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

When William arrives at the abbey, he finds it unsettled by the recent death of one of its legion of book-workers, copyists and translators and manuscript illuminators. It looks like suicide, sort of, but they can't figure out how he could have jumped off a tall building and landed where he did. Talk begins of demonic forces, as gossip will inside a medieval religious community. William agrees to look into the matter, not knowing things will get much worse.

As a bookish sort, and knowing the victim was a bookish sort, William zeroes onto the treasure of the abbey, its famed library where he finds all sorts of hindrances to his investigation. As befits a book written by a great literature professor, the case revolves around a book, an old book that should not exist but does come to circulate in a secret, deadly way in the small community of bookish people. A book people kill to see, kill to protect, a book that can even kill to protect itself.

If you haven't guessed by my last allusions, this is one of the books that helped launch a series of imitators, a number of books that dwell on mysteries related to books. It's a fun sub-genre, but this is the first and the best one. It was a huge bestseller in Europe and, once translated into English, managed to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. There are digressions, there are false trails, it isn't exactly beach reading. But, it's got a mad, blind monk who prophecies the beginning of the apocalypse, it's got a nice cameo for the Inquisition. It dwells on the daily life of an abbey with so much interest that sometimes the digressions the book indulges in are just want you want to read. At its back is this great mystery: why are these monks dying? How will William of Baskerville set everything to rights?

Be forewarned: you probably won't solve the puzzles until Eco leads you to the answers. It's just that knotted. And all the better for it.

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