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LIFE

A second look at The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 11:31am

The Name of the Rose
by Umberto Eco
Harcourt

The Name of the Rose is, among many other things, a book about books. Its opening line comes from the good book: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God."

The final page describes a scene littered with texts as our narrator, a devoted if confused novice named Adso of Melk, sifts through the wreckage of one of Christendom's great libraries: "I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books."

One can read Umberto Eco's last line as describing the methodology of the novel as a whole: The Name of the Rose is an artful jigsaw of echoes - pun intended - of many other books. There are allusions to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in the tetchy affection between the brilliant but enigmatic William of Baskerville and Adso, his student. Not only is the description of Baskerville lifted practically verbatim from A Study in Scarlet, not only does he refer to "my dear Adso" throughout, but he hounds - pun intended again - the person responsible for a series of deaths at an Italian Benedictine monastery in "the year of our Lord 1327".

All roads lead to the library and a secret book contained on one of its hidden shelves. Another major influence on the novel is the work of Argentinian short story genius Jorge Luis Borges. His name suggests that of the Venerable Jorge, the blind, powerful keeper of the library, which itself is seemingly inspired by Borges' classic, The Library of Babel.

At the heart of the mystery is a material book: Aristotle's supposedly lost treatise on laughter.

The transmission of texts throughout Eco's novel raises broader issues explored within the story itself. Baskerville constructs a story in reverse, tracing clues back to their origin. Eco examines the notion of interpretation - of scripture, morality, doctrine, love - and also writing as a means of encoding actual experience.

It all adds up to that rarest of books: an entertaining intellectual bestseller that sold millions across the world and was successfully adapted into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. At the end, Baskerville and Adso are trapped in a burning library, helpless as many of the greatest works in history go up in flames.

It is a salutary reminder, to an age of e-readers and over-publishing, that books are precious, fragile objects and well worth saving.