Friday, June 23, 2006

Book Report "The Name of the Rose" Umberto Eco

the scribe just finished, after a true reader’s via crucis, the long and impressive "The Name of the Rose,"by Umbérto Eco.

The book came to him through his old man, whom got it from somebody he works with at the California Workers’ Compensation Insurance Fund.

the scribe has always wanted to read the book: first, for its beguiling name, second for all the great covers depicting a deep medieval ambience, and third because Eco is an Italian intellectual, which the scribe believes makes them kindred spirits, if not seriously linked at some unseen level of things.

Nonetheless, the book was more a labor than a love. The beguiling name, it turns out, was chosen for how little it revealed. We know this because Eco has penned a considerable “postscript” in excess of 30 pages.

If the scribe were allowed that kind of indulgence he wouldn’t take it, because that would be explaining the book. You can explain a book a little - the scribe’s adaption of passages from “Vedette” to the wonderful music of Omar Torrez are a case in point – but not too much, as least not as much as Eco has.

After all, you’ve written a book and that should be explanation enough.

The author opens the p.s. with some observations on how titles can give a book away, or worse, mislead readers, and has some fun with classic titles that even a guy as famous as he shouldn’t, at least out of false humility, compare his own book to.

“Perhaps,” he writes, “the best course is to be honestly dishonest, as Dumas was: it is clear that ‘The Three Musketeers’ is, in reality, the tale of the fourth.”

He chose “The Name of the Rose” because, “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left...The title rightly disoriented the reader, who was unable to choose just one interpretation...”

Which is to say the scribe was tricked, which is no small trick.

Beguiled by a title not the book’s own, the scribe hoped the promise of medieval culture, the repairing to a quiet soul-enriching world of chants and hooded monks, grassy quads spreading over a scholastic abbey peopled by pure men, held firm.

And there, Eco, a self-described medievalist, keeps his promise, but to the point of distraction.

Disclosure here. Historians, those of the Spanish Civil War in particular, have been cool to the scribe’s “Vedette,” which was something of surprise because things Spanish are always underwritten and neglected in the U.S. press.

And the many professors who received the novel free of charge have never penned an insulting letter dubbing the scribe as a lying, licentious poet-so-and-so.

But neither have they done the opposite and after reading Eco the conclusion would lead a novelist to suspect jealously at the root of the snub, because one thing is a painstaking and scientific accumulation of facts, the other is spinning an exciting tale.

Eco leaves no middle-aged stone unturned and ultimately bludgeons the reader with facts, architectural essays to the minutest detail, and historical reviews of sectarian battles in the Catholic Church of that time so that the story itself seems an afterthought.

At least so it seemed to the guy writing this book report who remained focused and oriented through repeated playings of “Chant: The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.”

Among the problems are a cast of monks (Jorge of Burgos, Salamander of Sweden) too long and too difficult to distinguish from one another so that you – or maybe just the scribe – have to just kind of trundle along with the ensemble, taking them in and listening when they reappear without ever being sure when their last showing was, nor its narrative significance.

Eco’s architecture leaves something to be desired as well. The narrative, such as it is, meanders along over a few macabre murders and some confusing visits to the impenetrable library of the abbey in which it is set, as co-protagonist William, and the narrator/voice Adso, traverse great swatches of Catholic/European history in conversations most remarkable for the distance between start and end.

When Adso takes a backseat to Ubertino, or the Abbot, or one of the many other hooded theologians peopling the interminable text, the form is imposed anew as two elderly men talk at each other in pages-long dissertations that make “The Sidewalk Smokers Club” seem like a snappy, noir-yarn shorn of all excess (which it’s not).

By this the scribe means to say that if Umberto Eco were not Umberto Eco, and instead were master of the highwayscribery universe, this book might never has seen the light of day, let alone become a bestseller.

“Story of the Rose,” does have a number of messages and that’s fair reward for someone who grants Eco the respect we are told he’s due and stays the course.

What the scribe took from it was a reinforcement of his perception regarding the savagery in European man and the endless and senseless deaths sacrificed to the Christian mono-God.

As a non-believer the scribe finds it absolutely astounding that millions of people lost their lives to men of the kind portrayed here, and the cruelty of those deaths horrifying.

And it really happened.

Eco’s a smart man who’s trying to tell us something about the inquisitorial urge, its unstoppable momentum and irrefutable logic (they have God on their side), and the poor uses to which ostensibly spiritual mechanisms have been put to use since the pagan world collapsed.

May God help us.

2 comments:

Stefanie said...

It's been so long since I read this book I don't remember any details other than I really liked it. One of these days I'll read it again. I like Eco very much and thoroughly enjoyed his latest.

the highway scribe said...

Well, Stefanie, regarding taste, nothing written in stone. You're a better reader than me, and perhaps better prepared to wade through the opus.