The Name of the Game of the Rose

(Dan Efran Reviews Cool Books: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco)

[ SPOILER warning: I hate spoilers, but it’s hard to review a book without describing the plot somewhat. I’ll try to be subtle. ]

When an author spends seven pages describing one doorway, you know he’s not going to be cutting you any slack. You can only hope that the book will be as rewarding as it is challenging. That’s the game Umberto Eco plays, and he plays it well. He writes to exercise his considerable cleverness, then dares you to keep up.

Start with a Gothic mystery reminiscent of a Hammer Horror B-movie: an isolated abbey, a mysterious labyrinth, grotesque murders inspired by the visions of Revelation. Black cats. Dark and stormy nights. A miasma of drear and despair.

Add a witty and loving pastiche of Holmes and Watson, with William of Baskerville (get it?) endlessly criticizing Adso (get it?) for proposing improper syllogisms.

Add glimpses of the turbulent politics of a time (1327) when Popes and Emperors strove for authority over each other. Throw in a cameo from the Inquisition, predictably vicious, self-righteous, manipulative, inexorable.

Braid these threads into an exploration of paradoxes of faith: impure monks; unjust judges; innocent witches; heresy and doctrine conflated; ugly unicorns.

Then whip it all up in a cyclone of images, fever-dreams born of scripture and doubt. Chimeras leap from the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Mirrors reflect lies. The language of Babel makes sense. Things unseen are known; things seen escape knowledge. An open door stops you in your tracks for seven pages. Sense alternates with nonsense, the sublime alternates with the ridiculous, in lists of examples far longer than this one. Hope you like that kind of thing.

Meanwhile, the mystery keeps ticking away, a parade of corpses taunting the intrepid detectives, one after another, carrying away precious secrets.

This book is a labyrinth. You are expected to get lost in it, marvel at the clever twists and reversals, wander its chambers in increasing distress, then eventually escape, still wondering what path you really took, what you really discovered. There is a climax; there is a conclusion; but there is little of catharsis or release. The prize for completing this journey through doubt is not certitude, but more doubt.

I liked it.