Trouble in the Benedictine Order

It was a strange and wonderful experience reading The Name Of The Rose, Umberto Eco's extraordinarily lush story of intrigue and death in a powerful Benedictine abbey in the 14th century. For someone who has never read Eco before, the style was difficult but compulsively engaging, especially when Eco describes the thoughts of Adso, the narrator of this tale of seven sinister murders, as he confronts his own passions and tries desparately to reconcile the austerity enforced by his order with the images of physical depravity that surround him in the monastery. At many stages in the novel, the stark and austere lives of the monks are juxtaposed with some of the unapologetically titillating architecture of the abbey, and often men who have enforced celibacy and poverty upon themselves are forced to think about wanton sexual exploits. As a reader, one beings to harbor uneasy thoughts of forbidden things, somewhat akin to the experience of reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.

At its heart, this is a mystery with the role of the detective being played by Adso's master, Brother William of Baskerville, a Benedictine monk who seems to have found the great middle path between the constricting dictates of his religion and the liberating rationality of Roger Bacon. Without spoiling the novel, it can be divulged that William, during his task of unearthing the murders, realizes that they pertain to a secret which has, thus far been viciously guarded in the complicated labyrinth of the monastery's library. To get to the secret, William and Adso must first decipher the structure of the great labyrinth, and it is just a joy to find out how they do it. Many other issues crowd the novel – the duel between the Papacy and the Emperor, issues about the poverty of Christ, and the terrible fate of heretics – and in combination with the dangerous secrets that fester in the abbey, they make for a startling and brilliantly conceived experience for the reader.

The book seems to be written especially for someone who will read for the sake of the joy of reading, and in that aspect is reminiscent of A Suitable Boy, with one important difference. For all its endearingly rambling style, Vikram Seth's prose is simple to read, and Seth made it a point not to encumber his readers with difficult sentences. Eco's is a lot more difficult, and it is possible that this difficulty may prevent readers from going further. This impulse, of course, ought to be resisted for much more is to be gained in the bargain.

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