This is a compelling detective novel set in a 14th century Italian monastery that doubles as a novel of ideas. I’d actually seen the Hollywood movie twice, once as a teenager – for some reason I watched it in High School – and once recently because I thought my girlfriend would like it. The novel is obviously much more detailed and richer than the film, which is mostly to its credit.
This is unique mix of Sherlock Holmes, post modernism and “the novel of ideas.” I can’t say I’ve really ever encountered another novel that managed to compared a compelling mystery worthy of Conan Dolye – and very clearly inspired by him – that also is so deeply concerned with ideas and also takes a post modern approach to narrative and truth. It’s a truly unique combination and it’s easy to see why the book was such a sensation when it was released.
I think it’s mostly a success; it’s a page turner in spite of the level of arcana on display, there’s lots to think about and the sense of place is rather extraordinary. It really does feel like this could be a real story about a real Abbey in 14th century Italy. I think it’s mostly a pretty magnificent accomplishment and it certainly feels like there wasn’t much else like it at the time.
I have two nits to pick. The first is that I am really unsure what language this is supposed to be in. Is it Latin? Then why are there Latin passages in the text? I have this problem with films all the time but I don’t recall too many novels in which I have encountered this. And though it’s a really silly thing to be annoyed by, it does seem to be a pretty big issue. Because what’s the other option? This is in a local language that everyone happens to speak? Many of these characters are not from the area so the common language should be Latin. It really shouldn’t detract from anyone’s enjoyment but it bothered me. Sorry.
The other major issue I had is that sometimes the digressions into Medieval Christian arcana can go on too long and aren’t enjoyable (for me). Some of this likely comes from my background, as I don’t know much about this world and there are likely many jokes and references I just don’t get. But sometimes it goes on too long, such as with the digression about that book that monks shouldn’t read but do. I think this is a parody but it doesn’t work for me.
Still, on the whole this is a unique and entertaining novel. It manages to take some of the obsessions of Borges and puts them into a more accessible vehicle, a detective story.
Oh, and I love the courage of the ending. I understand it’s necessary for the themes of the novel but I appreciate it nonetheless.