By Umberto Eco
First Published in 1980, first English translation in 1983
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the on never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil.
With these lines, Umberto Eco began his novel The Name of the Rose, which has gone on to sell fifty million copies. On the surface, this book was an unlikely candidate to become an international bestseller – a book by an Italian professor, it has long digressions into medieval theology and references to a work by Aristotle. But it is also a murder mystery with intriguing characters and a fascinating setting.
Umberto Eco, is a professor at the University of Bologna, where he was an expert in semiotics – the study of signs. Since the 1950s Professor Eco has written on a variety of topics, including medieval aesthetics, Saint Thomas Aquinas and James Joyce. When he was 46 when he was asked by an Italian publisher to write a fictional thriller, although he had never written a novel before. Eco has given different answers on why he decided to take the challenge, such as saying, “Every person has a narrative impulse. I told my kids beautiful stories. Then they grew up, so I had to find other kids to tell my stories to.” He also answered, “At a certain moment I liked to do it. That is sufficient reason to do anything, provided it is not illegal.”
Eco began making use of medieval materials and research he had been collecting for over thirty years. “I picked up all the material over 30 years,” he commented, “but I didn’t know it was for a novel. I was filling up a secret cupboard with medieval files. When I decided to write the book, I opened the cupboard and all the files fell out. Then came the final percolation.”
It took him another two years to complete his novel. When it was released in Italy as Il noma della Rosa, his publisher hoped it could sell 30,000 copies. But the book soon picked up awards and acclaim, and lots of buyers. Still, American publishers were hesitant on creating an English translation, but in 1983, one company took a chance on making 4000 copies. A few years later, when the paperback version came out, the initial print run was 1.2 million books and a major advertising campaign.
The Name of the Rose follows the story of a Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville in the year 1327, when he visits Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological disputation. Soon some of the monks in the monastery start dying off in mystery ways, and William, along with his novice Adso of Melk (who is the narrator of the novel) try to figure out what is going on. The mystery includes secret symbols, a lost book by Aristotle, and a library that is also a labyrinth.
Many of the characters in the novel are real historical people, and Eco takes care to describe monastic life and medieval thinking. The story was framed in a way similar to a medieval chronicle. The author explains, “It was not by chance that I adopted the style of the medieval chronicle. The style of the medieval writer was very didactic – they explained everything. And I think by adopting this style, the book has been able to capture people who would have otherwise escaped.”
Most reviews have praised the book. Adele Freedman wrote in the Globe and Mail that “Eco has a way of describing his characters, their psychology, appearance and speech, which can suck a reader in like a vacuum cleaner. His enjoyment of the world he has created from the fragments in his files communicates itself on every page, working in tandem with Brother William’s unravelling – or reconstruction – of the crimes committed in the monastery.”
Meanwhile, a reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor added, “The story unfolds in an atmosphere thick with hostility and intrigue. What the great medieval historian Huizinga called the mingled odor of blood and roses is in the air, with the emphasis on the blood. Innocent people are being burned as witches and heretics. And the corpses of monks keep turning up when least expected. It would certainly be impossible to accuse Eco of having written a dry academic novel.”
Within a few years the novel was turned into a movie starring Sean Connery (Umberto Eco hates it). Meanwhile, Eco has penned five more novels, including Baudolino, which is set during the Fourth Crusade. As for The Name of the Rose, the novel is considered to be one of the best pieces of fiction in the modern era – it is in the 14th place according to Le Monde’s 100 Books of the 20th Century, while William of Baskerville was named one of the 10 best fictional sleuths by The Guardian.
Beasts and Buildings: Religious Symbolism and Medieval Memory – by Brendan P. Newlon
Metanarratives in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – by Doug Merrell
Naming the Rose: Readers and Codes in Umberto Eco’s Novel – by Steven Sallis