I think I deserve some sort of medal. I actually read and finished Umberto Eco’s first novel, “The Name of the Rose.” It was published for the first time in 1980 in Italian. I read it in English. I calculate that it would have taken me 2 years to read it in Italian assuming I could get through 1 page a day with the constant aid of a dictionary.
The novel has received widespread critical acclaim, selling over 50 million copies in thirty years and having been translated into over 40 languages. It has received numerous awards and honors, including Italy’s Strega Prize in 1981, and is included in the list of “The 100 books of the century of Le Monde.”
On the positive side, there are some interesting aspects of the book. It’s a mystery. It is set in the year 1327 in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. The book is divided into 7 days, marked by the rhythms of monastic life. It is narrated by a young novice, Adso of Melk, who accompanies his master William of Baskerville, a sort of Sherlock Holmes with great powers of deduction, who has been sent to the monastery to solve the mystery.
In this medieval castle run by the Benedictines, there are cellarers, herbalists, gardeners, librarians, and young novices. One after another, a half dozen monks are found murdered in the most bizarre ways. The learned William, perhaps a lapsed Franciscan, discovers that all revolves around the lost manuscript of the second part of the “Poetics” by Aristotle—which contains his theory of comedy and laughter.
The fun elements of the book are the library that is off-limits to all but the librarian and the abbot, and its design as a labyrinth with secret passageways, trick doors, and a hall of mirrors. There is also coded messages and invisible ink. And there is forbidden sex—both between Adso and a young village girl, and among the monks. The plot is quite clever although the ending is a bit melodramatic. And the themes of conflict and power, unfortunately, stand the test of time.
But this is a very hard book to read unless you are a medieval scholar. There are lengthy historical treatises and debates on religious issues, sects, the merciless treatment of so-called heretics, and the meaning of abstract concepts like laughter and poverty. There are endless lists of things like herbs and grotesque creatures in manuscripts. Latin is interspersed throughout.
You can skip it all and see the 1986 film by the same name starring Sean Connery. I saw the film and it is pretty bleak. Each monk looks more evil than the next. With some exceptions the film is fairly faithful to the book. I wonder, though, if I would have stayed with the movie if I had not read the book.