I met Umberto Eco just once, but it was enough to impress me with the awe reserved only for the most serious storytellers I’ve come in touch with over the years, like Carlos Fuentes and Eugene Ionesco. By sheer serendipity, our offices were adjacent at the University of Bologna, when I was Fulbright professor there. Still, I was surprised to hear from him after my review of The Name of the Rose in The Los Angeles Times appeared. He called it, “the best review I’ve read,” and republished it in his Essays on the Name of the Rose (Bompiani, 1985). May he rest in honor.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich
CONSOLED with the aphoristic acrobatics of Italo Calvino and the allegorical dramas of Dino Buzzati, 20th-century Italian literature had been awaiting the breakthrough Garcia-Marquez represented for Latin American literature. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose heralds the coming of age of the Italian novel, synthesizing the lyricism of Dante’s tradition with the intellectualism of Petrarch, the romanticism of Manzoni, the historicism of Morante and Moravia, with the introspection that Pirandello brought to the stage. And all this is cast in the suspenseful guise of a 14th-century detective tale.
Along the way Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, provides a taste and view of the late Middle Ages, when all morality had been transubstantiated: “He seemed to me one of those crippled beggars of Touraine who, as the story goes, took flight at the approach of the miraculous corpse of Saint Martin, for they feared the saint would heal them and thus deprive them of their source of income, and the saint mercilessly saved them before they reached the border, punishing their wickedness by restoring them the use of their limbs.”
If you had a romantic notion of the relative simplicity of the late Middle Ages, reading this will complicate your view beyond (or at least up to the necessity of) belief. Fra Dolcino (Gherardo), a renegade Minorite, is one of the many villains, daring to preach love against an orthodoxy preferring the power derived from insisting on discipline—their instruments the rack and the collection box. Eco anachronistically transplants Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, showing us that figure’s historical roots.
In an abbey in northern Italy a secret council is held to react to the upstart Pope John XXII’s announcement that the just won’t enjoy Paradise until after the judgment, devastating the lucrative business and holy function of the saints—and its opening rituals are conducted more in the odor of politics than of sanctity.
For all but the highest clergy, this was a time when everything and anything was believed, a time when “for fifteen days and fifteen nights, the rhetoricians Gabundus and Terentius argued on the vocative of ‘ego,’ and in the end they attacked each other, with weapons.” Stories were exchanged about the “scipods, who run swiftly on their single leg and when they want to take shelter from the sun stretch out and hold up their great foot like an umbrella; astomats from Greece, who have no mouth but breathe through their nostrils and live only on air; bearded women of Armenia….the monster women of the Red Sea, twelve feet tall, with hair to the ankles, a cow’s tail at the base of the spine, and camel’s hoofs….”
Eco helps us keep perspective with a bawdy explosiveness of language reminiscent of Rabelais, narrative taking life in its own hands to serve the same purpose then as now. Brother Salvatore, describing cheese in batter, gives his recipe to Adso (the narrator):
“Facilis. You take the cheese before it is too antiquum, without too much salis, and cut in cubes or sicut you like. And postea you put a bit of butierro or lardo to rechauffer over the embers. And in it you put two pieces of cheese, and when it becomes tenero, zucharum et cinnamon supra positurum du bis. And immediately take to table, because it must be ate caldo caldo.”
Eco shares Rabelais’ relative disinterest in character, preferring ideas and plot—revealing his affinities to the mystery genre he’s adopted for his masterpiece. What genre, after all, is more philosophical? As Adso and his master, William of Baskerville, unravel the perplex of bizarre ritualistic murders in the abbey and its labyrinthine library, we recognize (in addition to the obvious Watson-Holmes paradigm) G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers—employed to reconstruct the world according to Aquinas.
Those who know Dante will recognize other thefts: “A dark veil descended over my eyes, an acid alive rose in my mouth, I let out a cry and fell as a dead body falls.” The novel is a crossword in the hermetic tradition of Gongora and Borges, of Joyce and Quevedo, demonstrating a breadth of learning and depth of historical insight rare in our time when structuralists and neo-structuralists disingenuously pretend to have invented analysis. Eco’s own semiotics are rooted, he proves here, in the classics and the development of European culture.
He reminds us how mysticism has long been wed to Eros as he moves freely from the sublime to the carnal. Brother Adso’s illicit experience of forbidden love leads him to wax psalmodic: “As if no one longer existed, not feeling one’s identity at all, or feeling lowered, almost annihilated: if some mortal…could for a single moment and most rapidly enjoy what I have enjoyed, he would immediately look with a baleful eye at this perverse world, would be upset by the bane of daily life, would feel the weight of the body of death...”
William of Baskerville, Adso’s master, is the sleuth who uses his mind and his knowledge of optics and time-management to unravel the labyrinth. “A mad and arrogant Englishman” with a “great heart,” William is one who “laughed when he said serious things, and remained very serious when he was presumably joking.” William defines himself:
“…It may be that, as imperial adviser, my friend Marsilius is better than I, but as inquisitor I am better. Even better than Bernard Gui, God forgive me. Because Bernard is interested, not in discovering the guilty, but in burning the accused. And I, on the contrary, find the most joyful delight in unraveling a nice, complicated knot. And it must almost be because, at a time when as philosopher I doubt the world has an order, I am consoled to discover, if not an order, at least a series of connections in small areas of the world’s affairs. Finally, there is probably another reason: in this story things greater and more important than the battle between John and Louis may be at stake…”
Opposed to him are those in the party of inquisition, who declare, “The first duty of a good inquisitor is to suspect first of all those who seem sincere to him.”
Adso recognizes William as an intellectual: “I had the impression that William was not at all interested in the truth, which is nothing but the adjustment between the thing and the intellect. On the contrary, he amused himself by imagining how many possibilities were possible.” He learns quickly his master’s runes: “And so, if I understand you correctly, you act, and you know why you act, but you don’t know why you know that you know what you do?
Eco dances on the banks of allegory without casting its inane waters. He examines the historical controversy over whether Christ possessed property in such a way that we recognize a problem today’s church has not yet resolved. Similarly, he presents the cynical rationalizations by which the Church justified her innocence of the Inquisition’s tortures and executions.
William solves the murders only after Eco has had his chance to peruse the world in which both characters and author seek to define truth. William’s sole instruments are reason and perspective, as Adso hints in his question: “But how does it happen,” I said with admiration, “that you were able to solve the mystery of the library looking at it from the outside, and you were unable to solve it when you were inside?”
William replies: “Thus God knows the world, because He conceived it in His mind, as if from the outside, before it was created, and we do not know its rule, because we live inside it, having found it already made.”
Just as William’s logic reflects life itself, Eco’s book is a book of books. “Often books speak of other books,” William explains. “Often a harmless book is like a seed that will blossom into a dangerous book or it is the other way around: it is the sweet fruit of a bitter stem….”
So we’re not surprised to find that the cause of the murders in the abbey is a famous book, the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, dealing with comedy. Eco brilliantly creates the Aristotelian text as William reconstructs it—in all likelihood as good as having the real thing, should the real thing happened to have existed:
“We will show how the ridiculousness of actions is born from the likening of the best to the worse and vice versa, from arousing surprise through deceit, from the impossible, from violation of the laws, of nature….”
William’s antagonist, Jorge of Burgos (a wonderful parody of Jorge Luis Borges, upon whose “Parable of the Palace” Eco’s own paradigm is constructed), succeeds in repressing and destroying Aristotle’s book because it threatened to undermine the structure of all holiness. Eco’s prologue honors the tradition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Rabelais’ preface to Gargantua, and of Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, in its confusion of text and reality, its expression of authorial uncertainty and responsibility to narrative itself. Eco even asks us to believe that “On sober reflection, I find few reasons for publishing my Italian version of an obscure neo-gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century.”
In Borges’ little fable, the poet’s word faithfully encapsulates the world, explodes it, and it its echoing replaces it. The conflagration at the end of The Name of the Rose is worthy in its epochal intensity of the conclusion of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with only one difference: the magic is here without the marvel.
When the labyrinth is unwoven our suspicions are confirmed: “The plan of the library reproduces the map of the world.” The final conflagration takes us, nostalgically but also with relief, from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance—which, escaping that alien world of ignorance and belief, reaches as far as today.
Kenneth J. Atchity