William of Baskerville, (with his young assistant Adso of Melk who acts as his scribe), appear in just one novel, The Name of the Rose, set in the early 14th century, that became a best-seller and a classic. Brother William is a highly intelligent Franciscan, curious and not a little vain - but witty too. He resembles Sherlock Holmes in his powers of deduction as when, for example, he is able to deduce not only where a missing horse has gone, but even what its name is. And even the name Baskerville is reminiscent of Hound of the Baskervilles.
His physical appearance was striking: "His height surpassed that of a normal man and he was so thin that he appeared still taller. His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout, save in certain moments of sluggishness of which I shall speak. His chin also denoted a firm will, although the long face covered with freckles ... could occasionally express hesitation or bewilderment ... In time I realized that what seemed a lack of confidence was only curiosity ... I was at first, and most deeply, struck by some clumps of yellowish hair that protruded from his ears, and by his thick blond eyebrows. He had perhaps seen fifty springs and was therefore already very old, but his tireless body moved with an agility I often lacked".
The author is Umbert Eco (1932-2016), who has been described as "the most famous intellectual in the world". He was an Italian professor of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. It includes the study of how meaning is made and understood) at Bologna University, so it's no surprise to learn that the first hundred pages of his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980.1st English translation from the Italian: 1983) were made deliberately opaque: "I wanted the reader to go through a penitential experience as he entered the book, just as a medieval monk went through strenuous tests when he entered the monastery," he says. However, it doesn't get appreciably simpler. As Eco himself said, "I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth". So his novel is very much more than just a detective story. It's a profound mystery: "Book are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to enquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means". Or, to pursue it further down the line of semiotics: "A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things". Everything clear now?
Eco had begun as a philosophy student and been awarded a doctorate for his thesis on St Thomas Aquinas. He had also made a prolonged study of the Book of Revelation, and put this specialist knowledge to good effect in The Name of the Rose . He has explained that he "felt like poisoning a monk" and in the end he did this and very much more. Set in 1327, the story covers a week in a Benedictine abbey (we are not told exactly where it is, but it was probably somewhere in Northern Italy along the central ridge of the Appenines) where English Brother William of Baskerville (helped by his young German assistant, Adso of Melk (who becomes his Dr Watson, eventually leaving us the manuscript that tells the story), is asked to help solve this and further murders that follow (all apparently linked to passages from the Book of Revelation). His investigations lead him to the sealed off library, that takes the form of a sinister labyrinth, to which only the librarian is allowed access. Hidden in it is a secret room (the Finis Africae) and the mystery of a missing book around which the whole plot seems to revolve. We soon get lost in "many shadowy mysteries" in the incredibly complex world of mediaeval imagery and theology (further complicated by belief in the imminent arrival of the Antichrist, not to mention the more mundane guilty lust of some of the monks). At times this can seem very long-winded, and even tedious, and it's easy to get drowned in the sea of words (including untranslated Latin and German), but it all builds up (eventually) to a truly dramatic, even terrifying, climax.
The details are often interesting: Brother William has "a forked pin, so constructed that it could stay on a man's nose (or at least on his, so prominent and aquiline) as a rider remains astride his horse ... and, one on each side of the fork, before the eyes, there were two thick ovals of metal, which held two almonds of glass, thick as the bottom of a tumbler ... William preferred to read with these before his eyes". This was an idea he'd got from his old acquaintance Roger Bacon. But then we get a long involved description of a dream, or even a seven page detailed description of a carved door . Both apparently have relevance to the plot - if only we could see it!
The book is set in a tumultuous time when the corrupt Pope John XXII at Avignon was at daggers drawn with dissident Franciscans. For ex-inquisitor William, things seldom seem simple. When asked, "Will you tell me, William, you who know so much about heretics that you seem one of them, where the truth lies?" "Nowhere, at times," William said, sadly. Then there are long discussions on subjects like the poverty (or not) of Christ, and and whether or not Christ ever laughed: "The question," said William, "doesn't interest me much. I believe he never laughed. because, omniscient as the Son of God had to be, he knew how we Christians would behave". In fact, the plot turns out to hinge around a monkish fear that laughter, if allowed free rein, could threaten belief in the whole idea of salvation.
Eco writes with fine irony too, as when he produces a long list of the relics shown to Adso, ending with: "A rib of Saint Sophis, the chin of Saint Eobanus, the upper part of Saint Chrysostom's shoulder blade, the engagement ring of Saint Joseph, a tooth of the Baptist, Moses's rod, a tattered scrap of very fine lace from the Virgun Mary's wedding dress". Then William tells him, "In the cathedral at Cologne, I saw the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve". "Really?' Adso exclaimed, amazed. Then, seized by doubt, he added, "But the Baptist was executed at a more advanced age!". "The other skull must be in another treasury," William said, witrh a grave face. Adso explains that he never knew when William was jesting. I feel much the same about the author of this book. Take, for example, the title, The Name of the Rose. This was suggested by a medieval poem. Eco says that it appealed to him because "the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that by now it hardly has any meaning left".
The most extraordinary thing of all about this difficult, complicated book (understandably regarded as a treasure house by Eco's semiotics students) is that it has sold over ten million copies, despite its very demanding structure. Slightly reluctantly, I have to include it in my recommended list.
It was made into a film, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, in 1986.This is a lot simpler to follow, but the very odd-looking monks somehow lack conviction, and at times the horror verges (unintentionally) towards the almost comic. There's a lot more too to Brother William than Sean Connery is able to suggest. The film is available on DVD.
It is a significant comment on the novel that a whole book has been written to explain it: The Key to the Name of the Rose by Adele H Taft, Jane G White and Robert J White, published by the University of Michigan Press, and available from the sources below. It claims to demystify it, but with its long alphabetically arranged list, offering explanations of all the historical and literary references, and pages and pages of translations, with more explanatory text, of all the Latin, German and French quotes, it's not the sort of book you can sit down and enjoy - or even read. But I discovered one interesting fact from it: the character of the arch villain, Jorge of Burgos, is apparently based on the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, with whose philosophy Eco thoroughly disagreed. But the last laugh is with Eco himself, quoted in the book as saying that The Name of the Rose is just "a tale of books, not of everyday worries .... gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day, temporally alien to our hopes and our certainties". So perhaps we really don't have to explore all the learned references and private jokes to enjoy it.
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