by Kevin Di Camillo
In 1980, a pretty much unknown Italian author—he’d only written a couple of children’s books and some graduate-level textbooks on semiotics (the study of signs), James Joyce and St. Thomas Aquinas—named Umberto Eco published his first (and at that time, only) novel Il Nomma della Rosa, that is, The Name of the Rose. He was so uncertain of how it would be received that he pretended he’d actually found a medieval manuscript from one Fr. Adso of Melk, O.S.B., and had translated it. And as if that ruse wasn’t enough, he wrote a five-page Preface about how this manuscript had come down to him and he’d searched and researched it, but in the end, settled on his own translation (from what was supposedly the original Latin into Italian).
Thus began one of the all-time unlikeliest best-sellers of the past half-century: Eco’s The Name of The Rose, has been translated into every major language, turned into a movie, a mini-series, a board-game, a video game, in 1984 gave birth to Eco’s own Post-script to “The Name of the Rose”, and even spawned an unauthorized parallel book entitled The Key To “The Name of The Rose”: Including Translations of All Non-English Passages by a couple of professors at Hunter College.
The famous Catholic publisher and friend of Thomas Merton, Robert Giroux (of the publishing house Farrar, Strauss, Giroux), once opined that “A ‘Classic Book’ is a book that stays in print.” Using that metric, The Name of the Rose is indeed a classic.
But why was the book so successful?
In a sense, it should not have been. For one thing, it was written by Eco—who models himself on that most impenetrable of all twentieth century writers, James Joyce—with words that send one scurrying for a dictionary about every other paragraph. If the book was successful (and it was) in the English speaking world, it was due in no small part to that “Dean Of All Italian Translators”, the late William Weaver, who was able to make it, if not appealing, at least not off-putting to the English ear.
But a translator can only do so much. Eco’s setting is a fictional Benedictine monastery, that bears a striking resemblance to St. Benedict’s motherhouse Monte Cassino—in the year 1327. Worse, from the point of view of the publisher, the subject matter seems arcane and recondite: a group of the newly-formed Order of Saint Francis are going to meet with Papal legates and representatives at the Abbey to discuss their view of poverty—that is that nothing should be owned by the Franciscans (and thus, by extension The Church). A truly “inside-baseball” sort of debate.
One of the Franciscans is Brother William of Baskerville, who is tutoring a young Benedictine novice, Adso of Melk. Brother William, is an Englishman, Adso is German, the meeting is in Italy, the Pope (or anti-pope) John XXIII a that time was in Avignon, France, so the book already has an admittedly internationally-confused subject matter and stage-setting.
However, and this is where the 700-page book begins to take off, the action is driven by the day-by-day death of a monk, one at a time, and each, seemingly, according to the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse).
Since The Abbot can’t have monastic corpses piling up around him while the papal legates and Franciscans try to hammer out an agreement about just what “Poverty” means, he asks Brother William to investigate—and stop the bloodshed.
At this point I suppose I’m obliged to call out “Spoiler-Alert” and announce that The Name of the Rose, has been criticized for being little more than an overly-long Sherlock Holmes story set in a monastery.
That may be true as far as it goes but only in a highly-qualified way. For one thing, Eco seamlessly works in real personages such as the Grand Inquisitor Bernardo Gui, O.P., the theologian Ubertino de Casale, the head of the Franciscans Fr. Michael of Cesena, along with the imperious Cardinal Bertrando del Poggetto, who represents the Avignon interests in the outcome of the debate on “not whether or not Christ was poor, but whether The Church should be poor”.
This is not an historical text, but history the way Alexander Dumas worked in real-life churchmen in his The Three Musketeers: it may never have happened, but you can believe that such a happening was possible.
The Name of The Rose was, a mentioned above, translated into English and immediately became a best-seller on both sides of The Atlantic. I was only fourteen at the time, but I remember walking by my parents’ bedroom at night and seeing my father with his reading glasses on, knees propped up, with The Name of the Rose in one hand—and the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s three volumes of their Seven-Language Dictionary spread out all over the bed. And I could hear him mutter: “Can’t this guy write one PAGE without a word I’ve never heard of!” (My mother was sound asleep).
And it wasn’t just my dad: at work at our family’s bakery my uncles and my father would discuss the novel as if it were some crazy puzzle they were collectively trying to solve.
They weren’t alone: not only the book itself, but Eco’s own “Post-Script To The Name of the Rose” became a best-seller (in which he explains why he wrote it in the first place, and why he wrote it the way he did), too.
The book is a mystery within a mystery: not only are Benedictine monks dying sudden and bizarre deaths set to the Apocalypse, but then there’s the center of the story: the Library, which can only be entered by The Abbot, The Librarian and his assistant since it is an intractable labyrinth and impossible to get out of once you enter it. I’m giving nothing away when I say that the protagonist, Br. William and his novice, Adso, break the rules and find their way into the labyrinthine library—and barely make it out alive.
Next to The Crusades, perhaps the most misunderstood part of The Church’s history is The Inquisition which was founded, as Eco rightly points out in his novel, not to burn heretics (which it never actually did: this was carried out by secular authorities), but to correct heretical teachings. The fact that the Order of Preachers became almost synonymous with “The Inquisition” shows that the goal of the Church was correction, not coercion, and certainly not corporal punishment, save in cases where a heresiarch was spreading a dangerous teaching.
This is not to say that The Name of the Rose paints the Church in a rosey hue (pun intended): there are plenty of antagonists to go around, from the pompous Cardinal del Poggetto to the almost sinister Inquisitor Bernardo Gui, to the Abbot himself who seems, at times, more concerned with his abbatial cache of sacred relics than with what they represent: the faith and blood of the martyrs.
However, given the very few novels written about the Church in the past forty years, one must at least acknowledge that The Name of The Rose, despite its faults and failings (there are no perfect books, save The Bible and maybe The Imitation of Christ), is a strangely fascinating, utterly original, and skull-clenchingly difficult book to grapple with. As Eco himself said of the first 100 pages—which are full of untranslated Latin quotations and inscrutable questions of logic–he wanted readers to climb the mountain up to the Abbey with him, to become acclimated to the air and altitude, the time (14th century) and place (an Italian Benedictine Abbey)—and if they quit on the way up, “So much the worse for the would-be reader”.
However, many—millions, in fact—made the trip and forty years on The Name of the Rose continues to fascinate, confound, surprise, enlighten, and enrage readers—that last because the final line is in Latin and when translated, turns out to be not much help in understanding the long book. Thus Adso of Melk finishes the text with:
“It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nominee, nomina nuda tenemus.” (Yesterday’s rose exists in its name: we hold empty names.)