Book Review of The Name of the Rose: including Postscript to the Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose: including Postscript to the Name of the Rose
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Helpful Score: 4

If historical fiction is to be judged based on how well it transports the reader back to a specific moment in time, then Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is an exemplary text. From its clever (and completely fictional) preface to a "discovered" manuscript by an aged Adso of Melk, the reader is plunged into 1327, when Adso, then a young novice, accompanies his master William of Baskerville on a delicate mission to a wealthy northern Italian abbey. While sent to hammer out the conditions under which Michael of Cesena (a real historical figure) will answer the Papal summons to Avignon, the pair are engaged in another quest: to discover who or what is behind the deaths of half-dozen monks, which pile up by the day during their week long stay. The investigation centers on the abbey's labyrinthine library, supposedly the best in all of Christendom, forbidden to all except the librarian who guards its secrets.

Alas, other historical fiction is to be judged on other criteria as well, e.g. readability. Umberto Eco unabashedly claims that the first hundred pages or so are meant as a "penitential obstacle" to select for his desired reader. The next four hundred pages are not light reading either: often consisting of long sentences stitched together by many commas, many pages are devoted to espousing various positions on Apostolic poverty and whether Christ laughed or not. Readers unfamiliar with or uninterested in medieval Latin, various heretical offshoot sects, or power struggles in the medieval Church might find themselves skimming over many long passages in favor of the mystery, which is partly so engaging because of its main sleuth. Student of Roger Bacon and an Inquisitor who resigned, William of Baskerville uses empiricism, logic, and deduction instead of high-tech tools to get to the bottom of the mysterious monkish deaths. An intellectual tale, The Name of the Rose is a postmodernist novel best enjoyed if the reader can embrace it in its totality.