I’m honestly a bit shocked at how resistant I’ve been to this book the whole year. I knew it would be “hard,” so I kept putting it off. But I love Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and a bunch of hard books.
This book has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think it was hard at all in the same way those other ones are. It’s actually written in a very similar way to the way I write. There are so many interesting layers to this book that it will be hard to discuss the “mystery novel” aspect, because that was only one piece (and kind of the least interesting).
Early on, we get one of my favorite characters. He can’t speak any known language, but he’s lived in so many places that he’s developed his own. It takes from all the common languages and merges into a strange thing anyone can understand.
Eco doesn’t do this in the abstract, either. The speech is written out fully. This character is a synechdoche for the book itself. The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.
Eco doesn’t hide the pieces. They are all in plain sight through the characters. We have Jorge de Burgos representing Jorge Luis Borges. We get William of Baskerville representing Sherlock Holmes. And the title itself is obviously a reference to Romeo and Juliet.
…Or is it? Eco actually tells us the true inspiration is a Latin verse by a Benedictine monk named Bernard of Cluny. Since Eco was a semiotician, I have to believe he also had Wittgenstein in the back of his head, too.
What is the mystery?
The narrator travels to a monastery, and upon arrival there is a mysterious death of one of the monks. He appears to have thrown himself from the window of a library. Over the next few days, many more deaths occur.
This occupies the main narrative momentum, but I basically want to not discuss this further. Anyone who reads this book for the mystery is in for a shock. Let’s get back to the references.
Everyone sees some of the obvious Borges references here from his famous stories. But if you’ve read Labyrinths, you might start to think every single story in the collection gets referenced.
Much of the early part of The Name of the Rose has to do with navigating a complicated labyrinth (Labyrinths, The Garden of Forking Paths) to get to the library (The Library of Babel). They must crack a code (Death and the Compass, The God’s Script). They speak theology to each other (The Theologeans, The Three Versions of Judas). Issues of authorship with the narrator (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). Strange language spoken by the characters (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).
I think I’ve made my point. It’s not just “The Library of Babel,” like many people believe. It’s almost a transformation of the themes of the full collection of stories into a novel.
Another fascinating, easy to overlook aspect of the book is the chapter summary at the start of each chapter. At first, I thought they were mere summaries. But they got long and weird and pretty humorous as they went on.
Most people probably skip them thinking they offer nothing but a summary. Here’s one:
In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.
It doesn’t say much, but it teaches you something important: these summaries will provide commentary in addition to the summary. Here’s another:
In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.
If these were just summaries it shouldn’t provide commentary on the length of the chapter or how “interesting” a certain conversation is or remark “as happens in labyrinths.” I grew to love these summaries as much as the chapters themselves.
I’m not sure what else to say. I’m excited to re-read this. I think it will be as exciting as the first time through as I catch more and more references and understand the themes better.
I must caution that this is absolutely not for everyone, but if you find any of this post interesting, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is brilliant and well-deserved of the praise it has received over the years.