The Name of the Rose by Italian novelist, columnist and essayist Umberto Eco is an amazing novel that was translated into English from its original Italian.

Setting:

A Benedictine Abbey in Italy, run by Abbot Abo, which consists of 60 monks, various servants (approximately 180) and a lot of relics. Brother William (a learned Fransiscan) and his Benedictine novice, scribe and friend Adso arrive to sort out the strange apparant murder of a monk, Adelmo.

Main Characters:

Story:

William and Adso arrive at the Abbey, and are put to work to investigate the death of Adelmo, who has apparently been murdered by being pushed out of a window in the Aedificium. Was it murder or suicide? Day by day (the book is split into 7 days, each day is split into time periods, eg vespers, nones), a monk is murdered in bizarre ways that seem to link in with a prophesy of the coming of the Anti-Christ. A convoluted plotline quickly ensnares the reader into a world of intricate detail and intrigue as William and Adso struggle to work out who is murdering monks before more are killed. There is never a boring chapter, and the plot never lapses. Each page contains revelations, and heretical thoughts run through the plotline. 'Every conceivable sign the universe contains'¹ is left as clues, and William and Adso spend their days and nights trying to figure out how the death of an illuminator, a prophesy, a library, a labyrinth, a book, finis Africae and prejudices are linked. The ending is a rollercoaster of emotions and amazing confessions. The final paragraph is an amazing revelation, which adds a final twist to the story.

The Name of the Rose is a magnificent book. It is beautiful and emotional. The grammar (from the translating) is a bit cringe-worthy, but the sheer genius of Umberto Eco overcomes this editorial oversight. This novel is highly reccommended, and it is a humbling experience to have the honour of reading it... and I strongly suggest that you do!

¹ New York Times Book Review

It should be noted that the name of the book probably comes from a transcription error.

At the end of the book, the narrator writes: "Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus", which means : "The ancient Rose remains by its name, naked names (are all that) we have". As it stands, this sentence can be seen as a hint at the relationship between the thing and the word, between the remanent sign and the transient signified - an appealing conclusion for a semiologist such as Eco.

However, this verse comes from the poem De contemptu mundi ("On the Contempt of the World"), written by Bernard of Cluny (aka Bernard of Morlay). This poem is mainly a satire against the moral corruption of the world in general (and of the Catholic Church in particular) in the 12th century. Among other things, this long poem (3000 verses) stresses the transitory nature of this world's pleasures and glories, and uses the great cities of the past (Babylone, Rome) as an example. The most coherent reading for the verse that Eco cites is actually : "Stat ROMA pristina nomine", etc. Here is the context:
    Nunc ubi Regulus aut ubi Romulus aut ubi Remus?
    Stat ROMA pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
"Where is Regulus now, and where is Romulus, and where is Remus ? The antique Rome only remains through its name, empty names are all that we hold".

The Name of the Rose is a masterpiece of contemporary literature. I tend to think that this misreading makes this mysterious, evocative title even more poetic. Of course, ymmv.
In addition to the book The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, there is a movie of the same name starring Sean Connery as Brother William and Christian Slater as Adso. I mention the (otherwise excellent) movie in connection with the book primarily because of the earlier excellent discussion concerning the name of the book, which is offered up as an error in translation, as well it might be, though if so it is an interesting error. The movie takes some serious departures from the book (as they tend to in such situations) and (IIRC) ends with the line "...and I never even knew her name." This last is a reference to the girl with whom the young monk Adso has a sexual encounter, and whom he choses to abandon to continue his search for spiritual perfection. The line also recapitulates the title ("The Name of the Rose") and leaves one thinking that the name of the rose, and the name/nature of the woman, are the central mystery within the mystery. This I think is no accident (or at least if it is an accident then it is a delightful one) and I wonder if Eco himself had a similar notion with his chosen ending.

For the movie (similar to the book) also critically points out the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the...ah...practice of male love, and reveals the confusion of the monks regarding the worship of a woman who in their theology is blessed above all while real women are perverse and untouchable, fornicators with Satan, the cause for the fall of man. There is a scene where the naked peasant girl, riding atop Adso as they climax, is given a similar cinematic treatment as an earlier shot of the Virgin as a marble statue above the prostrate elder monk, who loves her with his his eyes averted, face against the cold floor. The symbolism could hardly be lost (that is unless one is too busy admiring the actress's admirable performance.)

Having read the book and seen the movie, and appreciated the erudite discussion elsewhere on the topic of the literary name itself, I sense that there is (or could be) more to glean from the title. Is the name of the rose indeed the same thing as the rose itself? Is the Virgin and the lost woman the same in the end or is one more real; one for having been given a holy name and then venerated as an image in stone by a man for all of his adult life, or the other for having simply been carnal with him for a passing moment before meeting the flames and being lost to the world for eternity? And if all we have is the name (or even less, just the scent and the feel) are we able to say we have it still though the thing is lost, nameless, and burnt? It seems to me to speak to the ongoing struggle between the abstract and the physical, idea and reality, stone and flesh, as we have struggled with so many abstractions over the ages, and not always to our profit. The point of the tale seems to be that the naming of the Virgin and carving her in stone did not make her more real than the nameless, lost girl giving her best to a young monk, who is himself to be lost into the church for the rest of his days. For at the end of his life Adso is not clear about what is gained or lost in his lifetime service of God, but he readily confesses that he has never forgotten that one moment of touch, that contact, with the flesh and life of a girl who was to be lost unto the flames of the Inquisition. What they gained, and then pitifully lose, strikes us just as nameless and timeless as purest stone, whatever the shape that stone might take.

Others have written about the deep layers of The Name of the Rose (enjoyable as a murder mystery on the surface, with allegory lurking in the depths).

I'll just add that Umberto Eco used symbols and layers even for his characters' names and appearances.

It's easy to lift the masks of (at least) two of the characters:

William of Baskerville is Sherlock Holmes

  • Their adventures are chronicled in first person by their assistants.
  • Holmes is a cocaine addict, William chews some unspecified herbs "good for an old Franciscan, but not for a young Benedictine".
  • Both detectives can describe in detail a scene that they've never seen, relying only on logic deductions.
  • Holmes solved the famous case of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
  • They are both native English speakers.

Jorge of Burgos is Jorge L. Borges

  • They are blind.
  • Jorge of Burgos was a librarian with a gift for tongues; Borges wrote the famous short story "The library of Babel".
  • Jorge of Burgos is the keeper of a labyrinthine library with mirrors in some of the rooms; mazes and mirrors feature prominently in Borges' works.
  • Their names sound similar.
  • They are both native Spanish speakers.

Eco also had some plain old fun with the names:

  • The monk that betrays his closest friend is Salvatore, a name that in Italian means "Saviour".
  • One of the old abbots is Roberto of Bobbio, a nod to the (late) Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio.
  • The original name of the narrator is "Adso da Melk". Grab your closest Italian-speaking friend and make him say that ten times fast; the name will morph into an obscene suggestion. Ok, it's just my dirty mind. Mr. Eco is a respected writer and professor, and these are childish jokes. Naughty Vorbis, naughty...

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