Friday, October 26, 2012

The Name of the Rose, A Review

     It has taken me a while to read this 502 page novel. Not because it is not interesting. It certainly is but Umberto Eco's passion for medieval history and language are very evident in this book. First off, like any Eco novel, it is well researched and the atmosphere feels authentic. You cannot fault him with any anachronisms or misinformation but he does go on a bit too long about the various heresies of the 13th and 14th centuries. However, some of this information is important to the back story of why William of Baskerville is at this Abbey in the mountains of northern Italy waiting for a delegation from the Pope when a young monk suddenly dies.
    The Abbot approaches William and asks him to investigate, although everyone believes it is a suicide, because William had been an Inquisitor for the Church at one time. William duly begins asking questions in the Scriptorum where the recently dead had worked and finds that there was indeed something mysterious about the young man's death. When another monk is found dead, soon after, it becomes clear that there is a murderer on the loose at the Abbey and William is engaged in a race against time to solve the murders before the Papal delegation arrives with the formidable and sinister Grand Inquisitor Bernard Gui at its head while the body count rises. Since the Abbot will not allow William to enter the Library, in the day or night, William must resort to stealth by night in the labyrinth of the Aedificium as it quickly becomes clear that the murders involve some forbidden book that is hidden in the library.
      The story is told from William's helper, the young novice Adso of Melk in the form of a memoir that Adso writes as he is nearing the end of his life. I recommend the book but, if anyone finds the discussions of medieval heresies or philosophy a bit wearying, they can easily be skipped over without losing anything essential to the story.

      Eco has written a nice introduction to the book, explaining his inspiration for the novel and he has also written a fairly lengthy postscript including a discussion of the source for the name.  He does not come out and say who or what is the 'Rose' of the title as he believes that, once the book is published, the reader is free to interpret the book as they see it. He writes that it is not the authors's job to tell the reader how to interpret the work and any interpretation could be equally valid. That being said, he does offer up the source for the Latin with which he ends the story: "stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus." as I translate it, "The pristine rose stands rose by name, we hold the name as evident." It is indeed a mystery.

     It is an odd little line because, in the source that Eco names, De Contemptu Mundi by Bernard of Morlay, available here in the original latin, the line is "Nunc ubi Regulus aut ubi Romulus aut ubi Remus? Stat Roma pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus." line 951-952.  "Where now is Regulus, or Romulus or Remus? The original Rome stands Rome by name, we understand the name."

In Book 1, line 177, there is a line about a rose "Tunc rosa sanguine, lilia virgine mente micabunt, gaudia maxima te pia lacrima te recreabunt." translated by me as "then, the lily gleams like the virgin mind, they recreate for you the great joy of your pious tear with the blood colored rose."

line 455 "Mox rosa fit rubus, ipseque cras pia, nunc rosa, cras fex." "Soon the rose will become red, Hereafter itself good, the rose is thereafter dregs."
line751 " O caro lactea, nunc rosa, postea sarcina vilis, flos tibi corruet et rose defluet haec iuvenilis....quid rosa? Foenum. " O milky flesh, now the rose, afterwards a burden of little value,the flower is corrupting to you and the rose proves unfaithful to the youthful of her......what is the rose? Hay."

The piece that Eco referred to is, in his own words, a variant on the ubi sunt theme. That is where have they gone?
It would be too easy to say the Rose is the girl who Adso meets in the kitchen one night and has sex with.  However the rose has so many meanings in medieval literature, one cannot be certain an event that was merely a footnote in a murder mystery was the most important event in the entire story that Adso tells about the Abbey. Perhaps it was the most important thing to Adso, but he never knows her name. The film with Sean Connery deviates a little from the book in the fate of the rose, although the novel is truer to what would have been her likely fate, which is more satisfying to a modern audience. Finally, I am not sure if Eco himself has a clear vision of who or what he meant the Rose to be.

3 comments:

Anachronist said...

It would be too easy to say the Rose is the girl who Adso meets in the kitchen one night and has sex with. However the rose has so many meanings in medieval literature, one cannot be certain an event that was merely a footnote in a murder mystery was the most important event in the entire story that Adso tells about the Abbey.

I've always been rather surprised that plenty of people considered that poor peasant girl the rose from the title. I might be wrong but I suppose it is clear from the beginning that this book is about something far more important than a short tryst of a young monk in the middle of the night.

I don't know but reading this novel I returned time and again the the idiom 'sub rose' meaning 'under the vow of silence', 'secret'. There are plenty of secrets Adso reveals in his narrative and also some that rest unsolved, like the mystery whether Christ laughed or not. Of course the name of the girl also remains unknown but it is really the least important matter.

Anachronist said...

BTW 'sub rosa' comes from ancient Egypt actually. The rose was the emblem of the god Horus. Later, the Greeks and Romans translated the god's Egyptian name Har-pa-khered as Harpocrates . Aphrodite gave a rose to her son Eros, the god of love; he, in turn, gave it to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to ensure that his mother's indiscretions (or those of the gods in general, in other accounts) were not disclosed. Paintings of roses on the ceilings of Roman banquet rooms were also a reminder that things said under the influence of wine (sub vino) should also remain sub rosa.In Christian symbolism, the phrase "sub rosa" has a special place in confessions. Pictures of five-petalled roses were often carved on confessionals, indicating that the conversations would remain secret.

The Red Witch said...

@it is clear from the beginning that this book is about something far more important than a short tryst of a young monk in the middle of the night.

Absolutely, and it seems clear from Adso's later visit to the Abbey ruins and his doomed attempt to rescue the remains of the books(that he finds there) that it is more something far less tangible.

@the idiom 'sub rose' meaning 'under the vow of silence', 'secret'.

Good point. This story is all about keeping secrets. I did not know all that other stuff about roses. Very interesting and thanks.