“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means…”
-Brother William of Baskerville
It’s 4 am, but still Saturday night. I’m at a friend’s place, and everyone’s passing out after downing a week’s load of college work with beer and rum. It’s usually wrong to do work on a Saturday night, especially if your journalism course is a respectably tortuous one. The freezing cold is making my ankles heavy with pain, captives of mosquitos who are moving rather quickly in this biting weather. But I was bored and wide awake and everyone was drunk so I decided to finish off this write-up.
The first image that flashes is an Instagram photo of the book placed carefully on my red-cushioned, wood-framed couch. A parchment-coloured paperback with Text and illumination. Especially that blue wording, which I keep thinking is purple for some reason. It is called, “The Name of the Rose”. It sounds a lot more beautiful in the original Italian, “Il Nome della Rosa”. I bought it for 300 bucks after wanting to read it for three years. I heard of it from an interview with the author we read in the twelfth grade. The first time I tried, I found it too exhausting a read, so I returned it for store credit at Blossom’s. But I picked it up a second time a semester later, for the same price, after my English teacher referred to it enthusiastically during a class on Christian history, and all the early Church’s attempts to censor writing.
This novel is set in the Middle Ages: The European kings and the pope are trying to not lose control or piss each other off. And in a parallel universe, the learned monks of the time who hate all three rulers and are trying to negotiate their own safe existence and jurisdictions, over their plots of secular land and the beliefs of man. And in one Abbey in Northern Italy, six monks are murdered rather diabolically. Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar, who knows the ways of God and the ways of men, investigates the murders. It is also at this time that a theological conflict between the Franciscan Minorites and the Vatican calls for the need of a debate on Poverty, which finally takes place in this Abbey.
Reading is my favourite escape, and Umberto Eco, being the suave storyteller that he is, made it one of the better ones. I usually dig my rabbit hole in a corner of the hallway outside the English Department. This book took me a month to finish, because reading each sentence felt like I was unwrapping a Christmas present. Every reader, at some point while reading Eco, places the world next to this book, and the world goes pusssssss; but maybe not as elegantly as the swirly puffs of smoke my friend was taking last night. Drunk as he was, I remember standing next to him in the balcony, listening to him sing Maroon Five songs, heartbroken. I never wanted it to end, as much as I never wanted to finish reading the book. It’s always nice to be in two or three worlds and to ravish their similarities and eccentricities, and then to feel good about oneself while writing and recalling.
And the abbey that Umberto tells his story in, with its apocalyptic plot of murders and its tragically prophetic ending, is a world unto itself, for which the words of the Holy Scripture came to pass. Except that in the end, there was no Second Coming, and no bejewelled kingdom, but only a burning ruin which one day the narrator revisits in the end, and says “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names”. The rose is but an outline of so many things which if stayed unburnt—like the peasant girl he made love to in the kitchen —would certainly be a splendid sight today. And to think the tragedy was caused by an old monk who wanted to keep a secret. What was it? A book on Laughter. So much so that he smeared it with poison that anyone who found it would unwittingly die. And when the place is burning down, and William and the narrator Adso, who is William’s novice, are resigned in one corner watching things fall apart, the former tells the latter: “The Antichrist can be born of piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer.”
I could relate to the antagonist better than any other character. The debates in the book such as about whether the Lord laughed or not, or whether poverty is a heresy or not, and on the virtue of the woman, are debates similar to ones I grew up having. My young teenage mind, before I joined college, was a little library in which popes and bishops and priests were having a book-fight. I was the Christian who never laughed, but only perused the world to find some gospel verse, sealed in a raindrop, written under a leaf, or chirped by a sparrow. And then I had the pleasure of stringing these together and strangling people who laughed. Teen Lovers. Swearers. Smokers. Drinkers. Gays. Harry Potter Readers. ‘Modern’ music listeners. I had not even heard of stoners. Ah, College.
Eco is a master of metaphor. Reading him is like ravishing a fruit trifle, with caramel custard and raspberry jelly and fruit bits and bread-pudding. You’re lost in all the layers and flavours. That how I felt when I read a section which was a discourse on books being preserved. He used the labyrinth of the library in the Abbey, the old age of the book and the book’s fragility to talk about why the abbey was so secretive, and more about the preservation rather than the reading of some texts. He makes the the lust of monks, that is the lust for knowledge, very seductive by describing it. The paradox of too much and too little runs through the book. William, learned as he may be, could still be called lustful for the way he reacts when he sees the rare books. Adso, who may well be called lustful for losing his cherry to a peasant girl in the abbey kitchen, is in continual conflict with himself, first going to look at more and more apocalyptic illuminations, then getting scared, and then going back again. One of the older monks calls this too a sinful seduction, that of the illumination and descriptions of evil.
In the end, it’s just William, Adso and Umberto Eco who survived the tragedy of the story, because they relished the paradox, and read the world around them in the spirit of history and tradition. The monks who tried to look for another rule, another direction from the abbot, another law in this poetry of scripture and theology–they perished, the abbot first, like the letter written on vellum, consumed by the flame.