Nicolas Barker once said that ‘all libraries lead threatened lives’. He should know – he, along with Cheryl Porter, oversees the Montefiascone Conservation Project, a conservation program focused on preserving the Seminario Barbarigo Library and its contents. A leaky bathroom was the culprit in that case, but the literary tumescence of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose disfavours such banal malefactors in its case of library trouble. Though its ingredients – a dead man or two, a cast of clowns with reasons to hide, an appreciably brilliant outsider, his somewhat dull-headed companion – are conventional, The Name of the Rose is not caught by the evils of cardboard or cut-outs.
William of Baskerville, our Chief Inspector Wexford in this 14th-century mystery, having been invited to investigate a mysterious death at an (unnamed) abbey, finds there a hubbub formed by fear and defensive self-interest. It is unclear, as always in a whodunnit, how the detective will penetrate the monks’ insular world. And it is a slippery orb, the sphere of the abbey; it is no mere drop of water whose quivering surface area allows access to anything solid and of weight. William and Adso, the sidekick narrator, visit at a messy time, with the abbey beleaguered not only because of the sudden death of a young monk, but also because of the fierce theological (and remember the historical setting – political) debates which all but obscure the devotion to God which forms the nominal anchor of the monks’ community. Difference of opinion in the context of religion is easily ascribed import beyond the tickle of intellectual disagreement. Residents of the abbey routinely take sides in arguments about whether, for example, Christ ever laughed, the ramifications of which would be of dramatic significance for men who live and die by the Word. Each opinion is extravagantly coherent and extensive, the pleasurably painful result of being able to follow one’s intellectual desire wherever it leads.
Against this background fraught with the patent lust for knowledge (and surely the repression of other lusts), the expression and attainment of it is understandably key. The library, from whose windows it seems the dead man fell, is an obvious place to start. But the library is closed to all but its keeper and his assistant, and the prohibition includes William. Eco, with his sheltering of the library from eager eyes, triggers a tide of thought, not dissimilar to that of Ahab pending his meeting with the white whale. What is the library, what is inside? What is a library? What does it represent? Who has been there, and can we enter? We are warned, though – its representative force, and its forbidding geography – ‘A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth.’
Even before an original copy of the Magna Carta sold for $21.5 million last year, we have known that people will do wild things for words, the objects that contain them, and the ideas they represent. Words are weapons, symbols and sources of power, utterly dangerous. So it is no surprise when deaths start coming, thick and fast, and fingers are pointed with equal speed. Yet who could divine the perpetrator in such a rabble masquerading as an order? Logic, though William puts all his trust in it, can only do its compromised best in the face of lunacy.
The name and the rose exist together; the rose dies, and we are left only with the name. But what is the name without the rose? Eco implicates us all with this curtain-drawn view of the confusion wrought by words, those pretenders at clarity and meaning, which can baffle even and perhaps especially the learned. I bet those Carthusian monks never have problems like these.