I’m very excited about the “spies and detectives” category of my list. I haven’t read much in the way of mysteries in my life-time of reading, and I enjoy the plot driven excitement. So consider my delight in finding out that Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose (featured in my ‘first novels’ section) is meant to be a mystery. Alas, the murder mystery aspect of the novel gets far less attention than the sometimes interminable feeling conversations and meditations on the nature, transmission and preservation of knowledge. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate a good debate about interpretation or the availability of meaning, I just don’t appreciate that debate masquerading as narrative.
Am I complaining that a novel should not engage with philosophical questions? No. Rather, this novel bothered me because the philosophical ideas and questions read like separate sections of another text stitched into the middle of a murder mystery. To my mind the mystery added little to the debate about knowledge (except the most obvious point that the ‘detectives’ search for knowledge, and that search offers no nuance or complication to the discourses about knowledge, rather it just reflects at the most basic formal level the thematic questions). Further the questions about knowledge were consistently raised in dialogue between characters, a frustrating and tiresome dialogue wherein this reader kept waiting for the conversation to end and the plot to resume. I’d enjoy reading this same plot and these same questions but with a single narrative, where the plot adds to the complexity of the philosophy and the philosophy does not read as a diatribe or didactic exercise, but as subtle and nuanced (if you’ve read ‘Sophie’s World,’ you could comfortable compare narrative structure).
And perhaps my complaints arise only because I had such great expectations for this novel. Several friends suggested I’d like it a lot, and the murder mystery presented such potential for thrill, not to mention the 14th century setting. I’d still recommend it if you’re interested at all in questions of meaning making, the responsibility of academics to maintain, disperse and preserve knowledge, or whether or not Christ laughed (seriously).