Here’s my report on the first chunk my ‘Echoes of Eco’ readalong of The Name of the Rose. Feel free to pitch in with your comments and links if you’re joining in, it’ll be lovely to see what you’re making of it so far. I plan to get to the end of the ‘fourth day’ during the next week leaving the last 160 pages for reporting on near the end of the month.
I’ll admit, this is not the easiest of books to get stuck into, but for every sticky bit of history, there were plot elements to enjoy, so reading up to page 178 in my Folio edition – the end of the second ‘day’ of the seven that make up the book was not a chore this first week.
This 14th century epic begins with a prologue – a piece of book within a book meta-fiction from the author presenting the story as his translation of an ancient manuscript he came across written by Adso of Melk. Eco is well-qualified to present himself in this way – a medieval philosophist of renown before be became even more noted as a professor of semiotics, and with this book, a novelist. The book is full of intertextuality, both learned and more obvious, and contains many quotations in Latin and other languages – I gather some are real, others made-up! It doesn’t matter, they’re not always translated in the text either, so I could only get the odd word, but they do illustrate the depth of the monks’ education.
Needless to say, the research that went into this novel is impeccable, so too Eco’s understanding of the turbulent times for the Christian church between the Pope John XXII (at this time based in Avignon) and Louis IV, and the internal conflict within the Franciscan and Dominican orders between the heretical sects of ‘Spirituals’ who advocated poverty and the rest of the broad church who were happy with their wealth! Right from the start, Eco builds this history into the narrative as various characters expound their positions. Yes, it’s an info-dump, that if my memory serves, continues well into the book, cropping up here and there. You could skim over these bits, but it is probably useful to read them in just enough detail to help get the sense of who is allied with whom philosophically; and it certainly makes it clear that the early 1300s were actually rather interesting times!
But to the story itself! Eco hands over to Adso who is recounting his story before he dies of the time he was mentored by William of Baskerville back in 1327. Adso was a Benedictine novice from Melk, an Abbey in Austria, whereas William is a Franciscan friar – his order often travelling, preaching as they go. They travel to the monastery together to attend a theological debate. They are just approaching the abbey when we realise why William is named ‘Baskerville’ – yes, William and Adso are Holmes and Watson. The abbot’s horse had got loose – William is able to deduce where it will be found and help the servants searching for it – without having seen any animal:
‘Come, come,’ William said, ‘it is obvious you are hunting for Brunellus, the abbot’s favourite horse, fifteen hands, the fastest in your stables, with a dark coat, a full tail, small round hoofs, but a very steady gait; small head, sharp ears, big eyes. He went to the right, as I said, but you should hurry, in any case.’ (p25)
William explains all the signs and his logical deductions to Adso as Holmes would to Watson. They enter and are received by Abo of Fossanova, the Abbot who welcomes them, but also tells William of a sad event that had recently occurred in which Adelmo, an illustrator who specialised in comical artwork in his illuminated manuscripts appeared to have fallen from the Aedificium, the tower that house the abbey’s famed library. He asks William to help investigate the man’s death. William will start his investigations the next day, but now he goes to the abbey’s church to meet an old friend, Jorge of Burgos, (a nod to author Borges), an old, blind monk who is hiding in the monastery for his views. He and William argue about the role of the inquisition and the purpose of laughter, something Jorge doesn’t agree with. We learn that William had been an inquisitor, but gave it up, no longer believing to to have any value. Adso listens to all this, adding his own thoughts:
what I saw at the abbey then (and will now recount) caused me to think that often inquisitors create heretics. And not only in the sense that they imagine heretics where these do not exist, but also that inquisitors repress the heretical putrefaction so vehemently that many are driven to share in it, in their hatred for the judges. Truly, a circle conceived by the Devil. God preserve us. (p53)
William and Adso visit the scriptorium, and meet the librarian Malachi, who shows him Adelmo’s work. William is already having thoughts about Adelmo’s death. He is surprised to find out that the entire library is one large ‘restricted section’ to use J.K. Rowling’s terminology. The only people who can enter the floor above to retrieve books for the scholars and monks are the librarian and his assistant, who have to learn the location of every text, as they are filed by date of acquisition.
Things are going to get much, much weirder in pages to come. Overnight there is another death, the body being found by the servants in the morning of Day Two, upended in a barrel of pig’s blood. William is going to have his work cut out!
And that is where I shall leave it this week. Are any of you tempted by this medieval murder mystery, or would you find all the theological history alongside off-putting. Do let me know your thoughts.
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