Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)

Umberto Eco clearly wanted to write a book about 13th century theology. Luckily that’s not what he wrote, or not just what he wrote. I imagine the conversation with his publisher went something like this:

Eco:               I’ve got a great new book concept! The idea is that the hero – instead of being a person – is, instead, medieval papal theology!!
Publisher:       Who in God’s name is going to read that?’.
Eco:               [looks at his feet, taken a back. Suddenly, an idea flashes into his head.]: Well, there’s murders in it too. A few monks get killed off in an abbey, and then another monk basically Sherlock Holmes – investigates.

Publisher        [gives a slow approving nod] Oh yeah, that could work.

And you know what, a phrase swims into my mind after reading it: unbelievable tekkers. Because The Name of the Rose manages to pull off two pretty ace tricks that are rarely found in one book-shaped package  – it’s great fun, and it’s rather interesting too.

A few of my friends told me that they didn’t manage to ‘slog’ their way through this book; they intimated that it was dull and literary in a bad kind of way. This doesn’t resonate with me. I found it nothing but unadulterated fun. That said, there are long sections which involve only monks quibbling about arcane theological points. I found those sections fascinating, and Eco – like the best writers – is able to make you interested in something that bored you beforehand. But sometimes these papal asides happen at quite pacey moments in the plot, and I must admit even I had a few moments of ‘Cooomme Onn, just get back to the plot’. But it’s important to remember at these junctures that theology is the real hero, and the plot a mere exciting distraction. 

The Name of the Rose is well-written and slick, but that doesn’t detract from the books most important and wonderful characteristic: the whole thing is great big dollop of silly. Somehow though, the author manages to convince the reader that it’s a serious work. And it is, in one sense. But it’s also pure silliness, and pure fun. There are mysteries and sleuthing, and shenanigans and secret night-time missions. The book has everything you would expect from a Sherlock Holmes story story set in a monastery, but somehow Mr. Eco imbues it all with a deep gravitas. It’s almost akin to the magician who pronounces to the audience solemnly ‘Ladies and Gentleman, this trick involves real danger, please stay silent at all times’. And the novel’s denouement – don’t worry, I won’t spoil it – is the silliest of the lot, it had me laughing out loud.


Of course, books always get me thinking about life too. I read this book mostly in the wilds of rural Canada – snow-capped mountains to the left of me, and a giant blue lake to the right. What struck me most – in that carefree place – was that in the 13th century people burnt each other at the stake over spurious theological questions. For example, was Christ poor? The bible doesn’t describe him as owning any possessions, and, since Christians seek to emulate Christ, perhaps the church itself shouldn’t own any possessions. Only one problem – the Catholic Church at the time was incredibly rich and powerful, so accepting the doctrine of Christ’s poverty would entail abandoning it’s eminent position.

So – just like Carrie Bradshaw –  that got me to thinking. The history of humans, more or less, is intertwined with the history of bullshit. Ever since we evolved from being a mere squelch of symbiotic slime stagnating on a rock-face, people have been believing in utterly ridiculous things. And partly that’s great, because life is ridiculous and a lot of ‘out-there’ beliefs have changed the world. But there’s also been a lot of genuinely ludicrous beliefs too.  Like burning witches, feeding people mercury to cure them, or ten foot lizards. Two hundred years ago people even thought leeches could cure diseases (oh wait...). We all have the propensity to believe in absolutely ridiculous ideas.

But, what’s interesting to me is that this, humans always seem to behave like humans. Whatever wacky beliefs people have, it doesn’t really affect how they behave at all! The reason the Catholic church burnt heretics was simply because they were protecting their power. The theological differences were merely the surface level excuse. And I think that’s often true. All over the world people believe radically different, contradictory things, but mostly they still act with the same motivations as everyone body else.. Some people are nice, some are nasty, but however lofty their beliefs, their motivations are often all too human.

The last word

On reading The Name of the Rose, be prepared. The book will reach into your mind and thoroughly hook you into the plot. It will then drag you through pages and pages of ancient theology. What I’m trying to say is that I came for the medieval detective, murder-solving monk, but I left with the papal politics and the fractious bickering of defunct Christian sects. And for that I have to say, Umberto Eco, well played sir.

Some other interesting reviews

Irrelevant Scribble
Eye on Everything
Splendid Labyrinths
Distracting from the Now

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