The first book off the list this year is
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
I've been meaning to read this book for a decade. Part of me is sorry I didn't get to it sooner; the rest of me thinks the timing was perfect. I would have relished the book stuff, the themes about knowledge; but now I can enjoy those while appreciating exactly how much Eco undercuts them.
I tend to forget that one of Eco's fields of study was the philosophy and history of medieval Europe. (Hence some of his fiction, notably this and Foucault's Pendulum.) So I was immersed in--and occasionally very shocked by--the worldview of the narrator, a young Franciscan novice.
I enjoy unreliable narrators (perhaps because they really draw me in, but also present a puzzle to solve), and this narrator is layered: the young novice helping investigate murders at an abbey, and his much older self, a monk writing these memoirs from the vantage point of age. Eco works between both subtly; I didn't realize exactly how unreliable he was until well into the novel.
Some of the attitudes and philosophies of the time were difficult to read about. A big element of the plot concerns heresy and the church's duty to censor ideas. Not only because of truth and falsehood (although it is couched in those terms), but because of the need for social stability. There's an almost mystical reverence for books, an automatic acceptance of them as either carriers of pure truth, or as works of Satan to deceive, which plays into the heresy plot.
Among other things that made me uncomfortable, or provoked thought, were the attitudes towards women, seen as snares of the the devil, as lower than men, almost as beasts. Also the recognition of sexual desire as a base drive, of lust as physical craving provoked by mere beauty (or deployed for its satiation even when not provoked). The monks call that bodily lust (what we might term "being horny") "the noonday Devil."
Counter to that, we have a beautiful sex scene--an unexpected encounter of gratitude and passion described entirely through language from the Song of Solomon. We never learn the girl's name (although she becomes part of the heresy plot), but our young monk thinks of her as "the one beautiful as an army with banners." Between this and the description of his love-sickness--of being head over heels in love--that our narrator finds in his books... Well. Sex is not just dirty in this world, even wrapped tightly in concepts of sin and shame and error.
Eco is a modern as well as a student of the medieval, and he has set this novel at the crux where modern thought is beginning to emerge: in the era of William of Occam and others. An era when a monk and scholar could plausibly use natural studies as a foundation for deductive investigation. I loved the mystery stuff, the labyrinth, etc, even though in the end other themes (the unstable, nested nature of reality and our perception of it) took over. It's not meant to be a detective story as much as a tale of how much both the medieval and the modern ways of looking at existence still fall short.
Anyone else who's read this book, please, comment. I'd love to chat about it.