Thursday, June 30, 2016

“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco – A Sinister Abbey

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco - book cover
Virtually every single murder mystery that's being written today takes place in the present day, with few daring to venture further back in time when one had to rely on logical deductions rather forensic technology to move the case forward. It is rather rare to see a good murder mystery that takes us hundreds and hundreds of years into the past, as Umberto Eco did with his world-famous The Name of the Rose, which as some of you know graced the silver screen as a renowned movie starring none other than Sean Connery.

The story takes place in the year 1327 and follows a certain Brother William of Baskerville, a disciple of God who is far from the person you'd expect him to be. Rather than be led by superstition and religious zeal, Brother William is the kind to place reason and logic above all else, naturally earning somewhat of a disdain from his peers. However, his talents aren't ignored as he is tasked with an important mission: investigate an Italian abbey where some heresy is suspected of occurring. Upon his arrival, Brother William finds himself drawn into a much more sinister mission than he had anticipated, with seven bizarre deaths suddenly befalling the abbey. Putting on his detective tunic, Brother William proceeds to unravel the bloody thread by collecting evidence, interpreting clues and their implications, deciphering codes... diving ever so deeper into the abbey's morbid labyrinth (both physical and metaphorical).

While there are certainly many elements worthy of note in this book, perhaps the one that jumps to the eyes the most is the amount of detail Eco devotes to the description of the abbey and the way of life followed by the monks. He certainly did his fair share of research into how people led their lives back in those days, giving some interesting insights into their daily routines, the relations between them, the dynamics between the higher ranking priests and the lives of the peasants surrounding the abbey. The portrayal of Christianity leaves a very strong impression, also serving as an examination and criticism by the author of the values held by those people back in the day, especially the religious authorities. In short, no expense is spared to create a real and palpable setting full of atmosphere.

The writing itself is rather lush and descriptive, with most of it flowing naturally and helping the reader to easily picture whatever is intended. But on the other hand, it can be somewhat painstaking read for one particular reason: a slightly lacklustre translation. There are numerous Latin phrases that weren't translated, and we're talking about entire passages. They might not be necessary to follow the whole story, but it is nevertheless frustrating to miss out on a few elements here and there due to a lack of guidance... not even footnotes. It really isn't a big problem in itself, but is still a con worth mentioning.

While there are certainly many dark themes and subjects examined here, Eco also mixes in some dry humour that works quite well at alleviating the tension and giving us, as well as the characters, the momentary respite so desperately needed.

As a murder mystery, this story works fantastically well, especially with the narration from Adso of Elk who accompanies Brother William on his travails. There are plenty of questions and strange happenings to captivate your curiosity, with progress in the investigation coming along slowly but surely, the author taking care to feed us just enough information to keep us craving for the next bit. Thankfully, this is the kind of novel where everything gets resolved and explained at the proper moments, leaving no unfinished business behind. There are quite a few twists on turns on a rather lengthy investigation, and the ultimate reveal truly stands as one of the best in the genre.

With everything taken into consideration, The Name of the Rose most certainly deserves it's place at the pantheon of unique and original books, offering a murder mystery experience you're unlikely to find anywhere else, one I must recommend to anyone looking for one of the best whodunit novels with a realistic historical setting.


Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 - February 19, 2016)

Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 - February 19, 2016)


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Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist, philosopher, literary critic and university professor whose best-known work came out in 1980, a historical mystery, The Name of the Rose. Amongst the numerous prices he was awarded are the Bancarella Prize, Strega Prize, Austrian State Prize for European Literature, and The Vize 97 Prize.

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