The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Absolutely nothing to do with roses, their names, or whathaveyou. In fact flowers in general hardly appear. Apparently Eco chose this title because of its neutrality; his first choice was Adso of Melk. Italian publishers at the time disliked using proper names for book titles and he compromised with The Name of the Rose, explaining that roses have so many meanings they mean nothing. He wanted readers to come to his novel with as few preconceived notions as possible. My only assumption was that roses were going to be a part of it, and it wasn’t a big deal to be wrong about that, so I guess he succeeded on that front.

Eco creates a believable medieval monastery with an impressive level of painful, conflicted piety. Everyone disagrees about what is right, holy, and proper, what God is like, what Jesus was like, and all are equally convinced that anyone who disagrees with them is at least wrong, potentially heretical, and maybe even an agent of the devil. There is no room for alternate viewpoints. Only one right answer. And the wrong one could consign you to hell. It made me grateful to not live in the middle ages. Who knew medieval monks could be so dramatic? Eco has his characters grapple with many deep and subtle philosophical questions about all facets of religion. The driving theme is the concept of forbidden knowledge; and the monks’ beliefs about the validity of that idea, and how the implement those beliefs in their own lives, underpins the central mystery of the tale. There’s a lot to ponder here, especially for a medieval murder mystery. Which is probably why Eco opted for as neutral a title as possible. Readers on the look out for an action-packed thrill ride will be disappointed. (Try The Prague Cemetery, if you really want to read something by Eco. I remember that having a faster pace.) But it’s not a dull slog, by any means. There is a lot of Latin, though. Occasionally Eco translates it, but frequently he just plops it down in the middle of the page and leaves you to it. By the end of the book I was ignoring the fact that I didn’t actually know what had just been said, and guessed. Even with a handy translator app, there’s only so much I could put up with. I wanted to read this book, not copy it out. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t want to go through and re-write the whole thing. Especially when Eco has already done a decent job of it.

*Aside: Someone had to translate this from Italian. That must have been a lot of work. Shout out of thanks, appreciation, and admiration to all the wonderful book translators out there. Thank you all so much for your hard work. Our lives would be immeasurably poorer without your efforts and skills.

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