The Name of the Rose has got to be the most philosophical mystery novel of all time, the one the most layered with symbolism and cryptic meanings. To fully appreciate the book that launched Umberto Eco's career as a novelist, it would be helpful to be well acquainted with several languages, at least basic notions of philosophy and logic, as well as medieval church history. Fortunately, Eco has wrapped all of this in a first-class mystery story, so readers with a less classical education can skim through the denser parts.
The novel takes place in a fictional medieval monastery (modelled very roughly on Monte Cassino) in fourteenth-century Italy. Preliminary talks between proponents of papal and imperial power are about to take place there. William of Baskerville, a Franciscan and a former inquisitor, arrives on a mission from the Emperor, accompanied by a German novice, who is the first-person narrator of the story. They find out on their arrival that a young monk has just died under suspicious circumstances. In the next seven days, there will be a series of deaths which William is tasked to investigate and hopefully put an end to, in the midst of multiple personal antagonisms and a high-level political dance between the delegates of the Pope, the Emperor, and the abbot himself.
William is a stand-in for the modern man, our window into the medieval mentality, which another very important element of the story: the medieval mind which assigns deep symbolic meaning to virtually everything, and for whom authority is more trustworthy than evidence interpreted by very fallible human beings. William is an anomaly, disabused by all the abuse of authority that he has seen, and at the forefront of the new kind of thinking that will sweep the world during the Renaissance. We find ourselves at a pivotal point in history. He is very much a Sherlock Holmes, in a world that really doesn't know what to make of him. Adso, his young assistant, is very impressed by him but also rattled profoundly. He is in many ways a Watson figure. And where is Moriarty, you ask? We spend most of the book realizing that he must exist and then finding him and, true to form, the story concludes with a dramatic between him and William-Holmes.
But because this book is more than a whodunnit, the now elderly Adso who is telling the story finds himself at the end of the book reflecting on the meaning not only of the events he witnessed but of life itself, and the meaning of everything he has ever been taught or believed.
Eco is a semiotician, someone who studies the meaning behind signs, which are themselves representatives of reality. The constant play between meaning, symbol, and reality is at the heart of this novel, and it is quite clear that he wants to bring us to a deep reflection on these things.
I was very much taken at the beginning of the story by how well Eco establishes the setting and the atmosphere. We find ourselves at the foot of the mountain on which the monastery is built on a snowy winter day, and we truly do find ourselves there, in another place and another time. It was beautifully done.
There are generous sprinklings of passages in different languages throughout the story, for the monastery is a very international place, with monks of many different nationalities, drawn to a monastery famous for its library and its learning. These are never translated, although occasionally reworded by one of the characters. Fortunately for me, my studies were in foreign languages, but the Latin was perplexing to me. This is not a fatal flaw in the book, but you might find it irritating. Anybody who likes a light read will hate this book. It is dense and requires quite a bit of thought to be appreciated. Those who enjoy the challenge will love it. It is certainly fine example of how literature can expose you to worldviews and experiences totally different from your own. The fact that it has not gone out of print in the last thirty-five years also speaks to the broadness of its appeal, despite its difficulties.
I would really love to explore the parallels between the fictional abbey and the famous Monte Cassino, but that would turn this into an analytical essay more than a review, and more to the point, would necessarily involve some serious spoilers. So I will refrain. For those who are interested in such things, Monte Cassino also inspired A Canticle for Leibowitz, an excellent work of science fiction which also provokes thought about the nature of civilization, faith, and learning.