The Name Of The Rose, by Umberto Eco
I have to admit that this is a book I heard about some time ago but just got around to reading. Had I read this book before reading other books by the author that dealt with his interest in semiotics and communication, or before I had finished the Brother Cadfael series, I likely would have appreciated this book less, because it serves as a thoughtful and deeply interesting mystery novel that relies on the reader’s ability to understand and relate to the thinking of the High Middle Ages and the tensions that existed within the Roman Catholic Church doing the period. If you come to this novel with a great deal of knowledge and interest in the thought of the Middle Ages and/or in the writings of its author, you will likely find much to enjoy. I found it not only a deeply interesting and page-turning mystery but also the sort of book that has a lot of resonance with the contemporary world and with the problems of knowledge and the effects of the knowledge of good and evil on humanity over the course of its history. Just as the medieval world dealt with the disconnect between its sages and its ordinary people, its high-minded ideals and its moral corruption, so too every generation must struggle with these gaps between the way it is and the way it should be.
The events of this particular book take place over the course of a week at a peculiar Italian monastery that is known for its immense and complex library and the scriptorium that both feeds the library as well as helps provide the monks and their leaders with a great degree of income. The book is narrated by the lustful but generally decent and simple assistant to the cleverly named Brother William of Baskerville, who serves as a detective when a series of disappearances and murders starts to rock the monastery and threaten its ability to serve as a place for mediating between the problems of the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire in 1327. As the body count increases and William becomes increasingly bothered by the shady behavior of everyone involved in the monastery, not least the way that there appears to be an underground economy of sorts that works at night while the monks appear to be behaving properly during the daytime. And of course, it is not only that the Catholic church and its representatives are divided, but the monastery is divided by those who believe in poverty and simplicity and are hostile to the book trade going on among the more powerful monks, all while the beleaguered abbot tries to save his monastery and preserve its dark secrets.
Ultimately, this book depends not only on a cat and mouse game played between Brother William and the abbot over access to the library, where the murders themselves appear to be connected, but also in a cat and mouse game between the library itself and other people. William suspects the library to be somewhat sentient and also to be engaged in a position of withholding knowledge from the world because it was not safe for the knowledge to be released into a world that was deeply hostile to it. We are used to thinking of libraries as places to spread knowledge throughout its community, but it is just as useful in withholding that knowledge from people who simply are not interested in it or prepared for it. And if that is true in this book, which runs to about 500 pages, it is certainly true in life as well, so this novel does more than talk about a fascinating and complex imagined past, but also about the way that culture wars work in general.