Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
A murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. This novel was a publishing sensation in the early 1980s and sold as much as 50 million copies worldwide. Before his writing career took off, Eco was a professor of semiotics in his native Italy. For those not steeped in humanities jargon, semiotics is basically the study of symbols and symbolism. Semiotics are useful in literary interpretation, archaeological research, philosophy, psychology, and unbundling metaphors, allegories, and myths. In line with Eco’s sensibilities, his novel is chock full of symbols and allusions, most of which this reader likely missed entirely.
The Name of the Rose is also a book about books. One of the main characters is an elderly, blind librarian loosely modeled after the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’ stories heavily featured dusty old libraries with labyrinthine architecture, secret knowledge, and mystical qualities—much like the one Eco’s character, also named Jorge, curates.
One of the main themes I was able to detect was the lure of the forbidden. Monks are supposed to be celibate. Just as in real life, these monks were often not. Also true to real-life clergy, not all of their dalliances were with women. But at the same time, they were racked with guilt and were obsessed by it.
Without spoiling the book’s murder mystery too much, the murder weapon involves forbidden literature that the victims are unable to resist. The murderer’s crimes are an attempt to keep this forbidden fruit under wraps, and the monastery’s ultimate fate hinges on his success or failure. The biblical allegory involving forbidden fruit is very appropriate.
Some readers will also be puzzled that names and roses appear have no significance in the book except in the title. Eco did this on purpose. Part of the fun of this book is sleuthing for hidden meanings and symbols. Eco, clever semiotician that he is, chose a nonsense title to throw some readers off the trail.