Friday, 11 August 2017

#19 A book published in the 20th century

The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco was one on the most well-known European literary critic of the 20th century. His fame would have rested on just his contribution to semiotics (the study of signs) alone, but he went a step further. He published his first novel, The Name of the Rose in 1983 and became an international literary sensation.

Being a historian specializing in medieval aesthetics, Umberto Eco is able to conjure up almost exactly the pervasive mood of doubt and suspicion of the 14th century religious conspiracies.  The Name of the Rose is set in the year 1327, in a wealthy Franciscan abbey in the mountains of Italy, where a monk has been found dead.  William of Baskerville, an English brother and follower Aristotle’s logic and Roger Bacon’s scientific enquiry, is sent on a delicate mission to this abbey.  Over the course of seven days, seven grisly murders take place. Turning detective, it is up to Brother William to collect evidence, decipher secret symbols and coded manuscripts as he digs into the eerie mystery that lies behind the murders. He has the help of Adso, a novice monk. So basically it will appear to be Sherlock Holmes and Watson thrown into a 1300s medieval abbey with a lot of theological debate thrown in. And when I say a lot of theological debate, I mean a lot. 

Being a postmodernist cultural critic, Umberto Eco’s book is clearly no simple plot-driven thriller (so if you thought this book sounds kind of like Da Vinci Code, you will be wrong). He interweaves so many genres into this one novel –it could be labelled as historical fiction, mystery, theology and philosophy, meta-fiction, detective fiction, literature, and more. Being a professor of semiotics, he is also concerned with how signs produce meanings. So, in many ways the ‘detection’ of Brother William also becomes a metaphor for our investigation into the nature and limits of human knowledge itself. William's method of deduction hinges on his ability to "read the signs" in the world around him.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book would be that this is a book on books! And you will be completely awestruck with the library in this monastery – it is constructed as a labyrinth – only the librarian and assistant librarian know where the each book is kept, no one else. Even if you wanted to get into the library labyrinth – there would be no way a layman would be able to get out. 

"There are reasons for the silence and the darkness that surround the library: it is the preserve  of learning but can maintain this learning unsullied only if it prevents its reaching anyone at all, even the monks themselves.”

And since all the murders point towards a secret manuscript in the library, Brother William and Adso need to find a way to navigate their way through this top secret, forbidden ‘labyrinthical’ library. Absolutely fascinating those scenes are!

Since there is a lot of untranslated Latin in the book, it would leave one a bit disoriented at the start. But I felt that the author may have meant us to be a little bit of a detective ourselves! Turns out there is an (expensive) reading companion to this novel …but I found the next best thing – a blog that is dedicated to collecting all the Latin translations in this book!

The pace of this book is very slow, and for the first two hundred odd pages, you may even find it utterly mind-boggling. But, it is a work of a 20th century postmodern mind set in a medieval times with a ton of history at its back. So, I guess it is inevitable. As the plot thickens and you wish to get closer to the mystery, there may occur digressions on philosophy, religion, logic or even architecture. Be ready to tackle a bit of confoundment if you are getting ready to read this one.

Surprisingly there is a touch of humour too that mostly is sprinkled in the dialogues between William and Adso, while at the same time make an interesting comment on the nature of truth itself:

“But then…” I ventured to remark, “you are still far from the solution….”
”I am very close to one,” William said, “but I don’t know which.”
“Therefore you don’t have a single answer to your questions?”
“Adso, if I did I would teach theology in Paris.”
“In Paris do they always have the true answer?”
“Never,” William said, “but they are very sure of their errors.”
[...]I had the impression that William was not at all interested in the truth…..he amused himself by imagining how many possibilities were possible.  

Though it was made into a movie with Sean Connery as Brother William, the author was extremely disappointed with it apparently, and never did allow any of his further fictions to be translated onto the big screen. I have yet to watch the movie though, but the book will probably have the last say.

Sic semper erat, sic semper erit :)

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