Unlike some of my friends, I have no problem with massive tomes. As long as the story makes sense, the characters are reasonably likable, and there seems to be a point to it all, I’m generally pretty satisfied. Because of this, I’m not afraid to tackle those texts that can’t be read in a weekend – in fact, I prefer stories that will allow me to be immersed for as long as the illusion will hold.
This brings me to the book that I am (re)reading: Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel, Name of the Rose, a masterful, complex, and fascinating, medieval mystery. I originally read this while I was in graduate school for Medieval history in the late 1990s, but believe me, that was purely coincidental. It was an extremely popular book when it was released, and it’s not that hard to see why, even some 30-plus years later.
It’s 1327, a time of religious crisis in the West, and a small abbey in Northern Italy is being investigated for religious improprieties. At least to a point, that is: The real issue is in why members of the small community keep turning up dead. It’s a good thing, then, that Brother William of Baskerville and his charge, Adso, have arrived. William can be likened to a ‘spiritual’ ancestor of Sherlock Holmes, since he shares so many of the latter’s characteristics: A near encyclopedic mind, an insistence on close observation, and a willingness to explain his ability. And those deaths? Well, this is where William is really baffled – each one occurs in a way that draws heavily from the Book of Revelations.
What really makes Name of the Rose for me is its complexity. This is no walk in the park. Between examining clues, William and Adso discuss (and debate) medieval theology, philosophy, and the crisis brewing within the Catholic Church. There are also side arguments (in the classical sense of extended dialogues) on life, love, and the nature of God. There are significant portions of the book that seem to go off on random tangents, and others that are written in Latin with little-to-no explanation. If you’re going to pick this one up, clear your calendar. It is slow, carefully sculpted, and in the end, thoroughly satisfying.
In all honesty, I can’t say that I’ve ever read a book that went to such lengths to make everything – from settings, to dialogue, to ideals discussed – seem so real and authentic. Here is a world with two popes, each demanding obedience; a world that has just started to recover from the Great Famine of 1315-22; it’s a decade away from the start of the Hundred Years’ War that would consume England and France; it’s two decades away from the arrival of the Black Death that kill over 1/3 of the Earth’s population. This is an age long since lost, yet in Eco’s skilled hands, it lives again.
As noted, I read this book in the very late 1990s. I don’t recall what happened to my copy; I may have given it away to a friend. In any case, when I came across a copy in a used bookstore a short while ago, I quickly snapped it up to reread it. I’m amazed at what I didn’t see the first time. It’s truly a fascinating tale.