Sunday, 28 September 2008

Review - The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose: on one level an accomplished murder mystery with a Sherlock Holmes-esque protagonist solving the crime, on another level an allegory of the search for meaning. In the latter sense it would be depressing since the search for any kind of meaning is continually foiled by the pervasive doubt that every event is inescapably random. Order vs. chaos. Faith vs. reason. Religion vs. science. Ultimately “the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

The author, Umberto Eco, is a medieval scholar and philosopher who has a gift for bringing those careers to bear in his writing. Both in this novel and The Island of the Day Before, Eco succeeds in crafting characters and events that read as perfect representations of people at the time (14th and 17th Century respectively). The characters never behave anachronistically; they act, react, and interact in manners befitting of their time. Necessarily this is an interpretation of how people behaved in the Middle Ages nevertheless it feels real. Eco also blesses the story with a full and entertaining explanation of context. When William and the narrator arrive at the abbey the Roman Catholic Church is in disorder: Pope John XXII and the Emperor are at odds, sects deemed heretical are popping up all over Christendom, and inquisitors roam Europe denouncing blasphemers and witches. The issues are explained through the course of the narrative – dumbed-down to some extent I’m sure, but never condescending. That context, combined with the introduction and several non-fictional ‘characters’, makes it hard to tell where history ends and fiction begins.

As a master of semiotics, Eco has made the book work in such a way whereby the reader infuses whatever they desire into the narrative. The subtext is present but open and there is surely a lot that can be gleaned from the novel’s pages. Like the novel's title, the whole thing is purposefully generic such that any meaning can be imposed. This is only fitting because on yet another level the novel is a postmodern piece about the interpretation of novels. The Name of the Rose can be, depending on the reader, an entertaining murder mystery, an account of 14th Century abbey life, a character piece about a young monk struggling to reconcile God with everyday existence, a description of the failings of the Roman Catholic Church, or, as I mostly read it, a thesis on the conflict between philosophy and religion. Throughout the novel reason is shown to have such beneficial effects and yet William of Baskerville consistently comes up against the superstitions, prejudices, and unfounded conclusions of the abbey’s monks. By the end it is clear that the conflict between philosophy and religious doctrine is the driving force of the narrative. This is not to say that logic is the hero throughout: the idea of whether reason is even useful hinges upon the novel’s major allegory of whether the universe is divinely ordered or purely chaotic.

The Name of the Rose is a beautiful book: a gifted allegory, a ripping yarn, and a fine example of what a novel can be. It represents a rare achievement; an intellectual satisfaction that is still a gripping page-turner. The spirit of its moral is disarmingly true; that the search for meaning, in its inherent futility, needs to be laughed at. It reminds us that often comedy is truer than serious tragedy, that we need to take life light-heartedly, that we need to laugh, and that philosophy needs to be done in the manner of Diogenes and, the master, Socrates – with a smile, a wink, and a relevance to the everyday.

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