This paperback copy of The Name of the Rose was given to me in 1985 when I was a mere teenager, visiting the Greek island of Corfu with my best friend. We were doing the backpacking, inter-rail thing and had come down by train through Yugoslavia (yes, it still existed), had spent some time in Athens (mainly to see Acropolis), and then ended up staying almost two weeks on Corfu before heading back to Sweden via Venice and Vienna. It was a very cool trip, though we scared our families half to death by not phoning home for over a week (this was way before cell-phones and wifi and ever-present internet access), and at some point our parents were probably about ready to send out Interpol or an international search party to look for us. Meanwhile, we were blissfully unaware of all that anxiety, keeping very busy eating hot ham- and cheese sandwiches, suntanning on the gorgeous beach, dancing to Cyndi Lauper, and whatever else teenagers do when they bust out of their hometown and get a snoot-full of total freedom.
Anyway, there was an American guy named Fred who was staying at the same small, family-run hotel where we were staying. I don’t remember much about him, except that he was tall, and might have been from California. Thinking back on it now when I’m more worldly-wise, it’s possible that he kind of liked me, but since he was very old (at least mid 20s!), and since I wasn’t used to anyone liking me, nothing happened except that one day he handed me this book that he’d just finished reading, and told me I should read it.
I’d never heard of the book, or Umberto Eco. (The Name of the Rose was Eco’s first novel: it was originally published in Italy in 1980, then translated into English in 1983 by William Weaver). The paperback was thick and dense and full of English words I could mostly decipher, even though I hadn’t learned them in school. So, when I wasn’t swimming in the Mediterranean, or eating generous helpings of Greek salad accompanied by platefuls of extra feta cheese, I started reading. And it was captivating. For a while I actually thought the story was based on a real medieval manuscript written by a monk named Adso of Melk, just like Eco sets it up in the novel’s foreword: “Naturally, A Manuscript”. Of course, it’s not. That part of the novel is just a storytelling device used by Eco, allowing him as a writer to assume the identity of Adso the medieval monk.
The Name of the Rose is set in the Middle Ages, and the plot revolves around a murder mystery in an abbey (actually, there are multiple murders). There are hooded monks, wicked deeds, evil afoot, mysterious happenings and intrigue in the scriptorium, erudite discussions about the power (good or evil) of laughter, rare and dangerous poisons, and several violent and extravagantly dramatic deaths (including a body found upside down in a big container full of pigs’ blood). And at the heart of it all is a library built like an intricate labyrinth, and a lost book by Aristotle – a book that Aristotle actually did write, and that really did exist, though it hasn’t been seen or read by anyone for many centuries. We only know about it because it’s mentioned in other books, and in the novel, Adso reflects on how books can speak of, and to, each other:
Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves.
Like any novel by Eco, The Name of the Rose is choc-full of philosophy, religion and history, and filled to the brim with references to other literary works, as well as profound thoughts on words and language. (After all, Eco is a semiotician and philosopher, as well as a literary critic and novelist). Eco is sometimes accused of being too much the professor in his books: one critic even suggested that “the main appeal of your work for a lay reader is the humiliation he feels for his own ignorance”. That’s a little harsh. But maybe one secret to the success of The Name of the Rose, is that it’s built like a “whodunnit” – a genre many readers are familiar with and like – making the characters’ in-depth and often extensive discussions on subjects like medieval theology, architecture, and the origin of words an added bonus, rather than the main feature.
Since that summer in Greece, I’ve read The Name of the Rose many more times. It’s a deep and vast book, and I can always find new revelations, and new layers in the story that I haven’t noticed before.
These days I have the book on my Kindle, of course: no need to turn those dog-eared, rumpled, yellowing pages and the ripped cover that has been fixed (repeatedly) with scotch-tape. Still, I’ve held on to the paperback through the years, even though it is literally falling apart at the seams, or rather: at the spine. I didn’t kept it because I’m sentimental about Fred, but because it’s a memento from my first real travel adventure, and also because this beat up paperback was the book that made me fall in love with Umberto Eco’s writing.
That love carried me to other books by Eco, like his masterpiece Foucault’s Pendulum (a brilliant story that is the perfect antidote to, and refutation of claptrap like The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail), and his essay collections, like Travels in Hyperreality, and How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays.
Even without this paperback, I’d still remember that inter-rail trip and that extended stay on Corfu, but I would definitely have forgotten Fred long ago if it weren’t for the fact that his name is written in fading ball-point ink on the inside of the crinkled and worn cover; and worse (much worse): without this paperback I might have missed out on Adso’s adventures in the abbey, and on Eco’s other books. Today, I look on it as one of those happy accidents that can take place when you really step out into the world, and allow the world to ruffle your feathers and influence you. In retrospect I find it rather fitting that my first encounter with Umberto Eco’s work came about by chance, simply because I happened to meet another traveler who was willing to part with a book he had finished.
To quote Eco and The Name of the Rose once again: “There was no plot… and I discovered it by mistake.”
- “…when I wrote The Name of the Rose I didn’t know, of course, since no one knows, what was written in the lost volume of Aristotle’s Poetics, the famous volume on comedy. But somehow, in the process of writing my novel, I discovered it.”
- “In truth, what really happened with my desire to write a book on comedy was that I wrote The Name of the Rose instead. It was one of those cases in which, when you are unable to construct a theory, you narrate a story. And I believe that in The Name of the Rose, I did, in narrative form, flesh out a certain theory of the comic. The comic as a critical way of undercutting fanaticism. A diabolical shade of suspicion behind every proclamation of truth.”
This blog post was brought to you by the memories of a younger me. Also: thank you, Fred.