Having recently re-watched the film – effectively atmospheric and a pretty faithful rendering of the book, though inevitably cutting and oversimplifying the plot and changing some details for visual effectiveness – I decided to return to the novel. This was, I think, the fifth time I’ve read it, and it retains its place in my top three novels of the twentieth century.
One always notices different things with re-reads, and this time I tried hard to make my way through all the heresies and religious conflicts, with some success. I was aided by a wonderful little book called The Key to The Name of the Rose, which translates all the non-English parts of the text for the reader, as well as explaining various issues and personalities in more depth: it enabled me to read more carefully and closely, and I was surprised by what I’d missed in earlier readings (or perhaps forgotten…)
Eco is at his best in the mediaeval world he knows and loves (Baudolino is his next-best novel, I think) and he brings it vividly to life as he creates sympathy and understanding for most of his characters: we do come to see just how differently people saw and interpreted the world in the fourteenth century.
He successfully weaves at least three plots together: the political and religious issues involving the papacy and the empire, the quest for Aristotle‘s missing book On Comedy, and a series of murders in the monastery which involved either this missing book or some secret documents relating to a heretic and his followers. He clearly loves Sherlock Holmes, and his main character and his companion are obvious tributes to Conan Doyle‘s heroes.
The novel is also marvellously structured: old documents seen, transcribed and then lost; the tale told by the ageing Adso who was the teenage companion and assistant of William of Baskerville in the events of the story; his reflections on his past, his solitary life as a monk, his idea of love; how the story which fascinates us for five hundred pages was almost never written…
There’s an originality here – the mediaeval setting has, of course, been frequently copied since this novel was first published – the unashamed intellectualism interwoven with the plot, and the desire to have the reader reflect on things eternal even if s/he is an unbeliever, which make this a truly outstanding novel. And I still get a lump in my throat as I come to the end.