I’m fascinated by publishing phenomenons – books that just take over the public imagination. Sometimes you read them and you understand how they became a hit (the Harry Potter series); sometimes you may not like them but you can see why people love them (Twilight, The Da Vinci Code). But other times, what you get is something truly unlikely, such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I loved but is also a Scandinavian book about female empowerment that takes over 100 pages to get going, is filled with foreign names, and meanders its way around its story in an unorthodox fashion. (I really liked that book, but it’s a truly bizarre best seller.)
But if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an unlikely bestseller, The Name of the Rose is positively bewildering in its success. Here’s a book that immerses you deeply in medieval life, gets into complex debates about medieval theology and 14th century schisms in the Catholic church, goes on page-long diversions into church art and the construction of manuscripts, features frequent interludes of untranslated Latin, and does all this while absolutely refusing to hold the reader’s hand at all. Yes, there’s a murder mystery at the book’s core, and a lot of intrigue, and even a bizarre labyrinth and dream sequences, but this isn’t what anyone would call an easy read.
And yet, somehow, I couldn’t put this down, despite my occasional frustrations at Eco’s discursive style, complicated subject matter, and overall verbosity. Or maybe I enjoyed the book because of those things, because whatever else you say about The Name of the Rose, the fact remains that the book immerses you in the medieval era in a way that almost nothing else ever has. No, Eco has no interest in helping you navigate the text, nor its debates and themes, because the characters themselves are already immersed in this world, and they don’t need to explain things to each other. Instead, Eco wants you to live in this world, see it through the eyes of contemporaries, and go back to a different time.
The result is a book that’s really hard to fit into any traditional genre classifications. Is this a murder mystery? Undeniably, with a series of grisly murders, unclear motivations, a possible conspiracy, mysterious labyrinths containing secrets, and a constant sense of danger (to say nothing of a Sherlock Holmes surrogate in the form of a monk). But to label it a mystery doesn’t work, because no mystery would have this much debate about the role of poverty and material possessions in the Catholic Church, or a debate as to the legitimacy of the Pope, an element of the book that’s given equal weight as the murders, and discussed possibly in more depth.
So is it historical fiction? Maybe so…but it’s also weirdly metafictional at times (with a playful prologue that establishes the book as a half-remembered re-creation of a manuscript that might or might not be fake), interested in the minutiae of theology and monastic life, all while being a thriller, but one that only seems partially compelled to follow the murder thread. It’s a truly odd book, and one that really had no business being as popular as it was, if you subscribe to publishing wisdom – it’s difficult, takes forever to get going, doesn’t hold the reader’s hand, and more.
But while you’re under its spell, none of that really matters, in the end; if the goal of a book is to transport you to another place or time, The Name of the Rose does that incredibly well. It’s not always “fun”, it’s not always fast-paced, but it’s immersive in a way that few books manage to be – and that, in of itself, is something worthwhile all on its own.