The Name of the Rose (1980)

by Umberto Eco

Though labeled a mystery novel, The Name of the Rose is not a book to pick up for escapist entertainment. It demands your full attention, and even then parts are likely to be missed or not understood. The investigation of the mysterious deaths of six monks in a 13th-century Benedictine abbey in northern Italy is woven into a historical story about warring factions in medieval Christianity and a philosophical exposition of the search for truth.

William of Baskerville, a Franciscan priest from Britain, arrives at the abbey to attend a debate about whether a Franciscan sect’s preference for poverty is heresy. With him is his assistant, a young Benedictine novice named Adso who is the novel’s narrator (shades of Holmes and Watson). They find out that one of the monks recently died from a supposed suicide. The abbot asks William, a brilliant scholar and former church inquisitor, to investigate. As more monks die in the next week, it is clear that a murderer is at work.

Umberto Eco, an Italian scholar, began his career as a professor of medieval studies and semiotics, an obscure field about how signs make meaning. William of Baskerville’s search for evidence to identify the murderer in The Name of the Rose brought together Eco's academic background and a detective story. Although he solves the case, William concludes with pessimistic words about the quest for certainty and meaning. Eco wrote a postscript in which he says he chose the title "because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.”

Eco was 48 when The Name of the Rose, his first novel, was published in 1980. More than 10 million copies have been sold worldwide, and Eco became a literary sensation. He went on to write four more novels, none of which was more popular than The Name of the Rose.


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