Yes, it is ironic I’m writing a review just a few days after expressing concern about low-rated reviews from “outsider” critics. To follow-up, most of what I meant was of critics of one type of art trying to impose their viewpoints on another type of art, just to be mean. It really is only a small percentage, but vocal. Anyways, now for the main dish: Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” – translated from Italian. I read the original at around 500 pages. I read without skipping sections. Yes, that matters, if you’ve read the book you understand why I mention that to begin with.
First, this is the short review I posted to Goodreads. And then I’ll continue. Overall, this should be short, concise, and clear.
“A fascinating yet troublesome book. This isn’t a normal mystery; it is far better than that. The writing is elaborate and good. The picture of every scene is wonderfully described by the author. And the plot itself is complicated to follow, and surprisingly simple once over. This book starts with enormous literary hurdles, a precursor to the rest of the work. At times it’s exciting, but unfortunately that is far out shadowed by all the unnecessary words. Simply put, the work is amazing, but it goes too far in many ways, and most of them unnecessary , even in trying to make a point. If it was half the size, you would miss nothing, even if the theological arguments went unchanged. Still, if this book chooses you to read it, it will not disappoint. I enjoyed it, but would have several reservations about who I’d recommend it to. One last thing: the best part of this work is that it could just as easily be non-fiction. I believe every bit of the amazing events inside could happen. That is both the best, and perhaps most sobering, part.”
I should really say, it’s a great read. I have both doubts and confidences in it. It is definitely good to read, once for the first time. I won’t ever read it a second time.
The Excellent: The realism. This really could be labeled non-fiction, and I wouldn’t bat an eye at the contents. In fact, it is best to be treated as non-fiction, and to think of the entire work as written by a real monk in the 14th or whenever century. It’s that detailed, that real, that accurate. As a modern author, there are several faults. But the work of an old monk, that I can readily see, agree with, and commend.
The Good: The flow of the story itself. I say the book has too many words, but the book didn’t actually feel like it was too long. Yes, it could be shorter. But it was rich with content. It deserves 2 or 3 weeks of reading, whether or not it’s 80k or 190k words. It’s around 190k words, by the way, and felt like half a million. That isn’t a purposeful exaggeration: my favorite books are this group of 4 or 5 books by a certain author that each clock in around 600k a piece, and each felt only slightly longer. That’s still a good thing. It flows well, even with excessive description. I say this is good, because there are far shorter books with far less description that drag on and bore to death. The Scarlet Letter being one of them, one of the only books that I could only read for a moment at a time, as it put me to sleep. I’ve been working late lately, and so some passages in The Name of the rose wore on me and made me nod off, but overall it was very, very engaging. Not many books can do that. Not many books and purposely be annoying to laymen, and still manage to hold the reader. Not many can be both exciting and entertaining. And though it takes the first 400 pages to get there, the last 100 are certainly a road of ups and downs far more brilliant than all their predecessors. I mentioned that the book has a hard-to-follow plot, but becomes simple once over. I won’t detail it, but it is very realistic for those that know the history of religion and the Catholic church. And utterly intriguing.
The Bad: It’s somewhat strange, the relationship with the narrator. At times you wonder if the narrator is Adso the Elder, Adso the Younger, or Umberto Eco himself. And it is granted that Adso talks about his present viewpoint at key areas, but it is still somewhat strange. I tried referencing other reviews when reading the book: I highly recommend against this. There is a good thing I should mention, in hindsight: it is impossible to consider reviewing this work before completing it. I thought I had in mind what I wanted to say at 300 pages. And then at 400 I discovered more I wanted to say. And then at 470 I thought of something different, and finally, at page 502, I realized that things were different, even from page 470. And ending there, I arrived here. In this wonder of bittersweetness. The book was sweet to read. But the last 10 or 20 pages of the book give me mixed feelings. They are adequate, but certain passages were confusing, and required clarification for the meaning, what Eco wanted to imply.
And that’s where I want to take an aside to point something out: This is about Catholic monks. Now, I am very, very educated on religion. I know most other religion’s beliefs, and have a thorough knowledge of the Bible. I didn’t have to consult it or some other reference when Eco/Adso talked about some theological subject, or talked about biblical characters. I saw the symbolism and understood it – although my knowledge is basic, my knowledge of the Bible is still far more thorough than the layman. Yet, even so, I had to wonder exactly what the author meant. Contrary to reviews I read while reading the book, to me it didn’t seem to be overbearing. Much of the theology was just presented, in its pure form. Most likely, and from the point of view of the Catholic church, unfortunately, no mockery was needed: the truth of the arguments themselves were self-mocking. Contrary to what someone may thing when first reading, the theological discussions are important to the few plots (two major ones) of the story, though the major one doesn’t see its connection until the end. And thus, if you read it, and make it past the first 50/100 pages, finish the book. You must continue, if you can make it past the first 100. You are chosen, at that point.
I also want to say, before continuing, that you have to remember the theology is from a Catholic point of view. When I encountered the narrator’s revelation near the very end, it left a very bitter taste in my mouth. That alone made me feel unsatisfied at the end. I didn’t want the story to continue; I wanted to know what the author meant, exactly. Fortunately, I have a friend who knew and was able to explain, which I actually then agreed with. So, please, if you read this, before passing judgment on the end bittersweetness, learn the true meaning of the argument. It is written in a convoluted way, but it is not an atheistic viewpoint. At least, not from an interpretation of this book. I cannot speak to the author himself, but knowing this deals more with Catholicism than anything is more of a relief. Don’t apply it to your belief, and don’t conclude that the author is claiming anything until asking him. That leads into the following.
The Ugly: This is horribly over-worded. Is that a word? Well, even if you don’t remove a single word from all the theological discussions and arguments, there is still thousands of words of excessive description that are unnecessary. This hefty book is weighed down by an excess. Granted, the author did do most of this on purpose, but I feel he could have left it to the content to alienate people, not the word count. Contrary to what I sound like, I am not saying the book was too long. No, actually for a work of this power, I say the length was correct! It was worth being a long, nearly 200k word book! But the problem is that there is so much extraneous, unrelated, unneeded, irrelevant description! I did notice that Eco tried referring to earlier descriptions later in the work, but it was a hard sell. It was done on purpose, and instead of making the work seem more real, it felt contrived. The world was rich and colorful, with or without all the extra. And it detracted from the overall work. Some long passages made sense later. Some helped the theology. Some were wonderful. But I stick by my belief that this book could have been abridged, and nothing would be missed by the reader. Half is probably a bit too much of a chop, but cutting out 25,000 words wouldn’t be much of an issue. This was not a translation issue; the translation was very, very good. But to be needlessly strung along by excessive words was annoying. It’s the books greatest detraction, in my opinion. Keep in mind, it only took me three weeks to read this. And of 500 pages, I read the last 200 in 4 days. The first hundred are slow and painful, the next hundred pique interest, and then it’s a volley of interesting and boring, bouncing back and forth. All the rest, the arguments, the academia (Eco actually terms this academic novel, and based on the huge amount of history inside, that is far too accurate, to the fiction reader’s annoyance), and all the silly thoughts of the strange narrator, are overlooked, in lieu of this great problem.
And yet, it was the right length. This really was written by a 14th century monk, who had lived a life that he must write, who has read great works all his life and was waiting for years to pour out every moment of the seven days that had tortured his soul to the extent that it did. If you read Eco, then there are some issues you must face with his famous first work, but you will read, love, and enjoy this work. If you read historical fiction, know a good amount of religion and history, and enjoy literature in general, you will enjoy this. And if you want to know the amazing story of a 14th century monk who really lived, this is for you (just pretend it’s non-fiction, and it will definitely have the appropriate impression.) But if you want a modern mystery, avoid it. If you cannot stand lengthy, somewhat arrogant, literature, stay away. And more. There are plenty who should avoid this. I cannot recommend this book to other people, because I would have to know a person well enough to know their taste in books to read this.
That’s why I read this: I have read several different genre’s and come from a colorful background. A trusted friend (Joel D Canfield, google him! Someday Box for non-fiction book consulting, and spinhead for web design) recommended it. I wouldn’t have read this work otherwise. And I pass on that thought: this has to come from a recommendation from someone who knows you, who wants to, at the least, know your thoughts on it. A friend can tell you if you are suitable to read this work. It really does choose it’s readers. And that, that is the brilliance of Mr. Eco. You don’t have to agree with him, certainly I don’t. But read the book, once. I cannot read it again. But I am thankful for the chance to read it once.
1987 words I could have, should have used in a novel, but had to put here instead, out of amazing necessity.