On a dusty bookshelf tucked away in the corner of a nondescript brick building, it sat, yellowed paper and bent spine. Printed in the early 80s, jacket art and overblown font signifiers of the time, newly translated from the Italian. Before the Sean Connery Hollywood adaptation. The Name of the Rose.
On the first handful of pages, an unnamed narrator discovering a lost text in a dusty european enclave, the written testimony of a monk from the 1300s. It’s a theme Umberto Ecco has embraced and highlighted in most of his work – discovered texts, reinterpretation, what of the thing itself is lost and gained in transition.
The tale itself a Sherlock Holmes mystery set in a medieval monastery. Adso of Melk, the young protag, accompanies his mentor William of Baskerville across the Italian countryside to an ancient monastery nestled in the mountains. It’s the time of two Popes, split between Rome and Avignon, and church politics play heavily on the workings of the plot. Soon after their arrival, monks start showing up dead of mysterious circumstances.
William fits the Sherlockian mold (Adso the Watson) as close as possible, and there are great scenes where the former bends over a murder scene in his handcrafted spectacles, sniffing out clues. Much of the book, however, is dedicated to obscure theological debates among the monks over minutia, references to the titles of long forgotten books, chants and songs never translated from Latin. It makes the reading a bit of a fractured experience, incredibly dry and long passages leavened with vivid accounts of murders or vicious tactics of the inquisition.
Heresy figures predominantly. Entire sects of monks are labeled heretics due to minor emphasis on the original Biblical text, in this case – Christ’s poverty. What were Christ’s true thoughts on possessions? “Render to Caesar”, of course, but what if the church is Caesar? Of course, the rich pope and priests in Avignon would want to legitimize property, if only to maintain lavish lifestyles in gold laden cathedrals. One character even speaks at length of the holy properties of various gemstones. Following all this, the poor monks, who wish little more than to live a life of service and transcribing tomes, are labeled holy or heretic, depending on the political alliances of their order (and are thus burned at the stake).
All this political infighting and background noise brings a hint of conspiracy to the murders in the monastery. Is it a vengeful assassin, enacting the killings to send a message (which appear to mirror God’s judgement from John’s Revelation)? William and Adso are forced to consider both physical and logical facts of the deaths (who was in the vicinity, what time of day), and the tertiary details (a dead monk was transcribing a certain book, was this heresy for a certain sect)?
As is Ecco’s forte, the rabbit hole goes ever deeper, all the way to madness. William and Adso explore the forbidden library, constructed as a labyrinth, tricked out with psychedelic incense and false passageways. Near the conclusion, Adso has a breakdown from exhaustion, envisioning a hellish feast where the entire cast of characters, along with Christ, the apostles, infamous bandits, even the popes commit any and all permutations of heresy. Everything sacred is violated, from communion and baptism on.
The final act of the book wraps everything up nicely (from a plot standpoint), but the open questions persist. If ideology becomes enforced with the rule of law (and punished by the sword and the stake), then everything can become heresy, punished at the whims of a capricious tyrant. If information is incomplete, is deductive reasoning useful, or does it lead to faulty conclusions? Should certain knowledge be taboo, locked away in hidden libraries, accessible only to the select few?
Ecco himself saw many of these nightmares come to pass in Italy during the 30s. Mussolini and the cult of fascism swept through the country. The intellectual elites elevated an ideology and in turn designated what (and who) was heretical. Mob rule, societal peer pressure, government backed thugs forced the common man to march in line. After Ecco died earlier last year, a phenomenal essay was republished on his experiences as a boy and thoughts on fascism’s roots.
The monks, castles and inquisitors of 700 years ago are but dust and fragments of text in lost books. But the root of that nightmare – inflexible ideologies, heretical pronouncements – are as fresh as newly transcribed parchment, the ink yet to dry.