Umberto Eco • The name of the rose

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 I finally remedy to my literary illiteracy by putting my school anthology in a corner of the attic. Langella and Frare, the authors of those schoolbooks, will anyway be happy to know that I had learned all the texts in their manuals by heart, a fixation that, among other things, has been going on since 2001, when I was old enough to read more complex text instead of nursery rhymes to learn the alphabet. One particular text has been stuck in my mind for years: it may be that in my childhood loneliness, labeled as a voracious bookworm, between one lesson and the next I did not fancy launching paper planes, but I used to pull the anthology out of the backpack, and endlessly reread the passages that struck me most. I now remember only one word of that text, “Selena”, written in italics, a name read by a child on a tombstone: the power of suggestion and the infinite resources of the internet did what I could not do in more than 15 years, and I found out that in fourth grade I was hopelessly in love with The house with a clock in its wall (John Bellairs, 1973).

 Umberto Eco is a name that, needless to say, echoes within the walls of every Italian school even when it is not explicitly mentioned. And Umberto Eco himself is almost a sacred, omnipresent and omniscient monster who always has something to say on any topic you may think of. I remember that before writing my bachelor thesis, in 2013, my Japanese literature professor advised to read an essay entitled How write a thesis (1977), and my first reaction was thinking “oh gosh, even here?”. Well, I didn’t read that book, and indeed I stressed my professor for months asking him absurdities worthy of a thesis only, for example if the Droste effect was applicable to a certain short poem by a particular Japanese author published in 1917.

(For the record: yes, it is applicable, and despite this
my thesis was a concentrate of nonsense anyway.)

 It would not surprise me therefore to learn that The name of the rose sounds to most people like an unreachable work, heavy as a brick, somehow similar to In search of lost time. To you who have not read it, I can only say: do it quickly, and do it now. To you who have already read it, however, I recommend rereading it.

 Eco himself, to tell the truth, was not very satisfied with his work: he recognized various inaccuracies after the publication, even asking not to talk about it during the 2011 edition of Salone del Libro in Turin. The most rigorous readers might have turned up their noses after a few of these mistakes, but I think we all agree in affirming that the hallucinating episode of Adso’s dream, in which Pharaoh offers a plate of peppers, is both incredibly rich and humorous at the same time. Peppers were not available before the discovery of the Americas, more than a century later.

 Let me open a small parenthesis here. My sources point out that this issue of peppers has been taken into analysis rather extensively and meticulously over the years, with endless diatribes on what is right to keep and what should be deleted for the sake of knowledge and/or pleasure. Those who take sides with historical accuracy cannot tolerate a dish of “sheep meat with raw peppers sauce”; on the other hand those who prefer to enjoy the plot and the subtext may not feel excessively irritated. I honestly hadn’t noticed this peppers thing; indeed, all that paragraph made me want to eat meat skewers with grilled peppers.

 Back to our book now: let’s put aside the digressions on the role of vegetables in Eco’s work. What can we say about a book considered the last novel of Italian literature of the twentieth century? The reputation of heavy brick crumbles, in front of the richness of the descriptions, the optimally dosed rhythm, the depth of the characters. We are left with an all-encompassing masterpiece that is both a mystery, a historical novel and a treatise on philosophy, an essay on Laughter and the tangle of Modernity.

 The voice of the elderly Adso accompanies us through the eyes of the novice Adso, and with the stratagem of the found manuscript we have a well-rounded protagonist who does not hide his human weaknesses. But the real protagonists are the books: celebrated as an eternal cultural heritage and preserved as priceless treasures, they are closed in the “largest library of Christianity”, and only a select few can afford to touch them. At the cost of dying.

“A monk should certainly love his books with humility, wanting their good and not the glory of his own curiosity: but what for the nonreligious is the temptation of adultery, and for regular clergymen is the craving for wealth, for monks is the seduction of knowledge”.

 In the end, I leave here a gem for linguistic enthusiasts who are still not fully convinced to read this wonderful book.

I saw the sheep, which “ovis” is called “ab oblatione” because it served from the earliest times to sacrificial rites. […] And the flocks were supervised by the dogs, so called by “canor” because of their barking. […] And with the oxen at that moment the calves came out of the stables which, both female and male, derive their name from the word “viriditas” or even from “virgo”, because, at that age, they are still fresh, young and chaste, and I had done wrong and still did, I said to myself, to see in their graceful movements an image of the non-chaste girl“.

 I feel like studying Latin again, I don’t know about you.

***

My edition:
Bompiani
2018 (I ed. 1980), pp. 619
ISBN 9788807721823

Overall impression: ★★★★★