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 one 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 ee 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. (p. 3)
Summary: It is 1327. Tensions are high between the Pope in Avignon, John XXII, and Louis of Bavaria; tensions are high between the Spiritual Franciscans and the Conventual Franciscans; tensions are high between nations. Adso of Melk, an Austrian Benedictine novice, is in Italy with his parents, who are accompanying the Emperor; to keep him out of trouble, and at the advice of Marsilius of Padua, his parents hand him over to assist the Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, who is entrusted with a mission for the Emperor. Legations from the Emperor and the Pope are meeting at an abbey in Northern Italy to negotiate various matters of mutual importance.
When William and Adso get to the abbey, however, they begin to discover a string of mysteries. Adelmo of Otranto, one of the young monks, has been found dead under suspicious circumstances, and the abbot of the monastery, Abo, asks Brother William to look into it, so that it will not interfere with the delicate political matters with which the abbey currently must deal. But one death leads to another death, and the meeting of legations becomes a heresy hunt. At the center of it all is the library, a vault of secrets and conspiracies, and in the library there is a book to which all the deaths are connected....
There is so much to the work that one must pick and choose what to talk about. As one might expect, there is a tendency to the allegorical in this work, as there is in all of Eco's writing. The abbey with its outsized library is in a sense the medieval world itself. The monastery is radically multinational: it represents all medieval Europe from Italy to Sweden. It is the locus of all the major political debates of the day, both ecclesiastical and secular. The library even literally represents the world.
The strength of the novel, however, is in the characterization. Even the secondary characters all stand out as distinctive, and the interaction between William and Adso as they attempt to unravel the mystery is excellent -- they are such very different people. Either would likely become tiresome if they had to carry the tale on their own, but they bring out each other's strengths and compensate for each other's weaknesses. Without Adso, William would come across as ruthless and manipulative, because in a sense he is -- almost every conversation he has with anyone other than Adso involves him leading the discussion in a direction he wants, to get what he wants, if he can. Adso, on the other hand is too thoroughly medieval for the mystery genre.
It is also a brilliant move that the narrating character is not a mediating character. We are all closer to William of Baskerville than we are to Adso, very nearly by definition. Adso is not an Everyman; he does not represent the modern reader but the medieval people about whom we are reading. If you think about the way medieval tales usually work, this is quite rare, and while no doubt difficult to do properly it avoids the great danger of modernizing the medieval into oblivion.
Eco's most common weakness is that his philosophical interests tend to overwhelm the story. He is quite ingenious in working around this, but it is often noticeable in other works. The Name of the Rose, however, is arguably Eco's greatest work precisely because his philosophical interests never manage to overwhelm the story. Eco pulls the whole tale in an agnostic direction -- but the medieval worldview inherent in much of the tale is powerful enough to fight back, and the tale itself, as a mystery, gives it room to do so, since the mystery genre is itself not particularly friendly to agnosticism (people do not generally read mysteries in order to discover that there may be no solution, but to see a disorder turn out to be order after all). Since Eco is indeed very agnostic but he is also informed enough about medieval thought not to slip into mere caricature (which is not to say that he does not ever caricature), this gives the story an extraordinary richness.
In many ways the novel is a way to tell of a clash between the medieval worldview of the fourteenth century and a modern worldview that did not actually exist yet but whose foundations were being laid, a fact occasionally indicated by a little authorial cheating (e.g., Adso's prophetic dreaming, or William's quoting Wittgenstein toward the end). Technically, the medieval worldview loses the fight. Historically it must. But it is represented with such power that a reader might well be left wondering if its loss was due more to technicality than the greater strength of the modern worldview. We may be left with Adso gathering fragments of a lost past, left with nothing but words, but the appeal of the story itself is all in the medieval mystery.
William Weaver's translation, of course, is a tour-de-force. It takes a special kind of erudition to translate Eco, but the English works in its own right.
"But is the unicorn a falsehood? It's the sweetest of animals and a noble symbol. It stands for Christ, and for chastity; it can be captured only by setting a virgin in the forest, so that the animal, catching her most chaste odor, will go and lay its head in her lap, offering itself as prey to the hunters' snares."
"So it is said, Adso. But many tend to believe that it's a fable, an invention of the pagans."
"What a disappointment," I said. "I would have liked to encounter one, crossing a wood. Otherwise what's the pleasure of crossing a wood?" (pp. 379-380)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, Warner (New York: 1984).