I sat there reading this, thinking to myself, “Who would possibly tolerate such a wasteful, navel-gazing, irrelevant, parasite class as these useless, up-their-own-arse, fat, self-contented monks?” Then I had to remind myself I ask a similar question everytime I’m unfortunate enough to catch sight of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton on reality tv. The Name of the Rose is a book that’s hard to enjoy outright since it is almost exclusively populated by deeply unpleasant characters. The one thing you can comfort yourself with when starting out is that many will die before the book ends.
While some people might deem it anachronistic to criticise the characters of a novel set in a 14th-century Benedictine monastery for being racist, homophobic, misogynistic, elitist pigs, it still does leave the reader with very little to actually like them for. As far as actual positive character traits, we have William, who is essentially Sherlock Holmes in the 14th century. We are supposed to like him based solely on this, and his other merits rely mainly in refraining from putting to death innocent people when he could have done otherwise. Go hero! Adso, the narrator, is also supposed to be likable, although this too relies on his being identified with Watson and also that he is a harmless teenager bumbling round a world of corrupt men. However it should be pointed out that Adso engages in sex with a hungry, if not starving, peasant girl, in which consent is extremely questionable as she does not speak his language, they have all of a few moments unintelligible dialogue together before the act commences, and she has grown to expect the monks will exploit her for sex when she is hungry and needs their scraps. He then ‘repents’ her, dousing himself in the doctrine of women’s inherent sinfulness, their grotesque flesh, their status as the ruiners of mankind, and Satan incarnate. Then she’s taken away to be burned as a witch and he does nothing to help her. Go hero!
So you are pretty devoid of likeable characters in short. Those are the two protagonists and even they are quite repugnant, relying almost entirely for favour upon the fact they are derivatives of much more popular characters by another author. The rest are worse. And thus it is difficult to have highs or lows when you are simply waiting for a bunch of awful people to be picked off one buy one. A better ending would have been to have no one survive.
As I read this, I just kept thinking, “Who would write such awful people?” and then I read the afterword. The author describes his book’s appeal not just for men of learning like himself but also for the “uncultivated” reader. He might as well refer to them as “the simple”. The long windy extollments that decorate the text whenever anybody opens their mouth to talk about a subject they feel strongly is replicated in the afterword, and I felt I was getting yet another sermon. And when it comes to the degradation, sexual exploitation, vilification and murder of the novel’s only (nameless) female character, I had to wonder why that was written and written in just such a way, in short who it was for.
Now I’ve studied medieval history and I’ve studied medieval culture. I hated both. So this was probably not the book for me – period. I find medieval history makes me want to scream because it is literally centuries upon centuries in which so little real progress is made and in which the main changes relate to the minutia of absolute nonsense. Then there’s usually a big massacre of one group of people or another. It’s depressing as fuck. It can however be interesting because the past is a different country and things are very much done differently in the medieval period. But The Name of the Rose is not a good example of how people lived and coped within the social order of a very different world. It is a good example of what privileged white men thought replicated here by their modern counterpart. Groan.
So, you’re probably starting to suss, I didn’t like it. As to the mystery part of the novel – Meh. As to the theology and philosophy which are not so much woven into the text but spouted from their allocated sock-puppet monk character – Meh. I do not think he succeeded in making either aspect interesting or gripping or engaging. I found myself just floating through the novel. Perhaps because I didn’t have a likable character to latch onto or a reason to care.