Who would have thought that a mystery novel set in a 14th-century monastery could illuminate the arcane world of semiotics?
The Name of the Rose appeared in Italian in 1980 and in English translation in 1983. Umberto Eco (who died on 19 February 2016) had previously written Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984) and co-edited The Sign of Three (1983), both books based on earlier scholarly work. Eco was a noted literary and cultural critic, having attained notoriety with a short essay (1961) titled Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno (“Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno”) deconstructing the fake allure and all too real vacuity of Italy’s most popular quiz show host.
In the event, the publication of the novel was less surprising than its form and style. What purports to be a historical thriller on closer reading reveals several layers, gleefully combining evident fact with less evident fiction. It plays linguistic games and deliberately recalls (echos, one might say) the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, who solved cases through logical reasoning and forensic science. The Name of the Rose is first and foremost a book about interpreting signs and symbols, about the library as a metaphor for what we know (or think we know) about life. As the narrator points out:
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”
The Name of the Rose – ostensibly an annotated transcription of a late medieval manuscript – tells the story of Fr. William of Baskerville, who has come to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to discuss a controversy about poverty with other members of his Order. Shortly after his arrival, monks start dying and, convinced that they have not committed suicide but were murdered, William and his novice, Adso, search for likely suspects.
William’s investigations lead him to the monastery’s labyrinthine library, where he concludes that the blind librarian, Jorge of Burgos, must be committing the murders out of misplaced apocalyptic fervour. As William pursues him, Jorge sets fire to the library, which destroys the collection – including the only copy in existence of the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics – killing Jorge in the process.
At the end of the book, William is obliged to acknowledge that, despite all kinds of evidence that he had assumed created a pattern, he had settled upon Jorge by mere accident. Whatever he thought he knew had been ambiguous, uncertain, and subject to connections that only he had made. And though he had worked hard to construct a plausible narrative, his interpretation was wrong.
Of course, Eco had laid a trail of clues for both William and the reader to follow, none of which could be relied on and all of which raised doubts. Similarly, as the narrator points out:
“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means […] True learning must not be content with ideas, which are, in fact, signs, but must discover things in their individual truth.”
Eco applied that precept to his own extraordinary life. In a wonderful interview with the Iranian writer Lila Azam Zanganeh published in The Paris Review (Summer 2008), she describes visiting Eco’s apartment in Milan:
“A labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings – thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese…I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory, The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.”
Umberto Eco: a comet that lit up our corner of the universe before continuing its endless journey of exploration. Briefly, we were privileged to go along for the ride.