Book: Umberto Eco, 1980. Film: Dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986.
– Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. – Umberto Eco
– Some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that. – Bill Shankly
– Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. – James Joyce
Comedy is a serious business. That is the unlikely but vital message at the dark heart of The Name of the Rose, the unlikely but vital hit of the dark heart that was the 1980s. Umberto Eco, who died last week at the age of 84, saw an unlikely gap in the market in smelting together two of the decade’s chief publishing obsessions – medieval sword-and-sorcery porn outside the academy, and maddeningly opaque literary theory within it – into an unlikely airport book we could all feel proud of buying. Both novel and film tell the story of William of Baskerville (or ‘Bashkerville’, in Sean Connery’s inimitable lilt), a Franciscan monk and super-sleuth, summoned, along with his trusty novice, Watson … I mean Adso (Christian Slater), to a remote, unnamed, mountaintop abbey in the wintry north of Italy. Their job: to solve a spate of mysterious deaths which the baffled Benedictines think the work of the Devil, but which William, the confident rationalist, knows the work of smoke, mirrors, and man. Changing hearts and minds in this place, though, might be too much for even the greatest of intellects.
Finding out killers in the midst of any cut-off community is always something of a priority, as any Cluedo character will tell you. But as if things weren’t bad enough, the abbey is also to host an MPs-expenses-style debate on the Church’s wealth and the ethics of those churchmen – quite literally – emptying the dregs into the gaping mouths of the poor below. Throw in the threat of the Inquisition being sent to torture confessions out of whoever seems best, or worst, if William can’t crack the case in time, and you have enough psychic pressure and looming scandal to turn your tonsured hair white. For the sweating Abbot (Michael Lonsdale), the bodies can’t be swept under the straw matting quickly enough.
While it may seem redundant to offer *minor* spoiler warnings for a 36-year-old book, the story as it appears in both book and film is a clever – at times queasyingly cerebral in the book’s case – and compelling whodunit I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure. I say in both as Annaud’s film departs from its source in several unsubtle but skilful ways, honouring Eco’s postmodern relish for matters textual in referring to itself as a ’palimpsest’ of his novel (is this the only time that word has appeared in the opening credits of a film?) Indeed, one scene has Connery thumbing a book, excitedly proffering it to his flummoxed sidekick as the work of Umberto de Bologna (Eco worked at Bologna for much of his academic career. That I just explained the joke makes me the kind of smug dupe he would have eaten for breakfast).
So The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery on the face of it, though Eco’s book, part inspired by Borges, and conceived in a pre-internet world still reliant on books, essentially hinges on the idea of the library as a tool of human liberation. The library Eco creates, like all medieval scriptoria, is closed to the dispossessed, the peasants and lepers who forage beneath the abbey’s rubbish flue, the outcast sects branded with heresy in their misguided fights for social justice. Salvatore, the hunchback (Ron Perlman), and Remigio, the cellarer (Helmut Qualtinger), have embraced lives of bloated ease within the abbey walls, having long since turned their backs on the religio-political ideals for which they fought as younger men. It is for these ideals that they will be framed for the murders and executed by the Grand Inquisitor, Bernardo Gui, Eco’s version of Arturo Ui (played brilliantly by F. Murray Abraham). Here the problems are societal and political, the circumstances very much historical. But the library is also, literally, labyrinthine, its more nebulous and dangerous secrets unavailable even to those with access, and here the debts are literary and allegorical. Though Brother Malachi, wandering in from the pages of Ulysses, is the librarian, the real custodian – just in case we weren’t already on the scent of reference – is Jorge of Burgos, the abbey’s creaking, blind patriarch.
And this, in a nutshell, is the Eco method, the novel’s grand experiment throughout. It is, like culture, like consciousness, composed of fragments, a sort of greatest hits of things we’ve seen and heard, making grindingly complex theory about books accessible in the form of, well, a book. And a page-turner at that. Parts of it are admittedly too turgid for the pages to turn all that readily, and the film shows itself more agile and purposeful in getting through these moments. The complicated episode Eco supplies to establish William’s Holmesian powers, the hunt for Brunellus the horse, Annaud replaces with the more everyday act of William scenting out – as it were – a toilet for his cross-legged companion. And in so doing he takes us economically to one of the book’s key philosophical stances on bodily comedy as a conduit – again, as it were – to human kindness.
Currents of the Rabelaisian carnival are forever boiling to the surface in this story. Clearly its expression is forbidden, but in the frigid deep of abbey life its need is abundantly clear. William, the Franciscan, allows a good piss joke to his novice, even stressing it as foundational to all we do: ‘In order to command nature, one must first learn to obey it’. Annaud remembered, like all great comedians, to start with the first principles of the body. Comedy is forever at the periphery of our material existence, gesturing towards something greater than ourselves, and it’s no coincidence that one of the first places Joyce, Eco’s greatest literary mentor, takes Bloom is to the lav. Indeed, Nabokov insisted that one letter is all that separates the comic from the cosmic, and while the flush of the commode is hardly comedy’s most celestial height, in this place, it’s a start.
The guidebook to a richer approach – Aristotle’s second book of Poetics, on comedy – is within the abbey’s walls, if only anyone could find it. Or survive a reading of it. Shortly before it is lost forever, it speaks of using vulgar persons, of taking pleasure in their defects, and there’s plenty to go around in the cast of characters Annaud assembles. We’re treated to a delicious roster of mugs, of human gargoyles and hunchbacks, clumpers and toothless droolers, oily fatsos and reedy creeps, each one a dermatologist’s wet dream, coated in boils and welts with hair loss like mange. But here comes the payoff: Aristotle’s tract, William notes, was an instrument of truth, and William, the great student of nature’s great book, the determined reader of signs, believes that truth will set us free. Cocking any kind of snook at human weakness will only seem shortsighted and cruel unless the ultimate goal is liberation, as a great genealogy of comic masterminds – from Swift, through Joyce, to Monty Python – had the discipline to suggest. Moral responsibility is a hazy and contentious thing, but the struggle to attain whatever it may be is intrinsic to the job of satire. Mocking others for our own satisfaction and not their own good does nobody, least of all ourselves, any good. Comedy, at its best, skirts the margins of tragedy’s undiscovered country, lets us know it’s there while reminding us of all we can still reclaim, that things don’t have to be that way – and that, surely, is something worth joking about.
Still, your next laugh could be your last. Annaud’s film captures the texture of medieval life, and how brutally hard it must have been, more convincingly than anything I’ve ever seen, and all its departures from the book are rooted in the coldest earth. In choosing to stage the executions of Salvatore, Remigio, and the girl, rather than have Gui’s thugs do it offstage, as in the book, Annaud stakes another significant claim to an independent vision, or to the palimpsest he offered us at the start. In the world of oppressive, fatal superstition it conjures, we almost understand how the earthly mess of burning wood and flesh, against the starlight, could be rationalised or accepted as a divine consummation, a moment of spiritual release, so incomprehensible is the sight. But again the body triumphs, the peasants revolting at the grim torture, killing Gui and freeing the girl before fire consumes her. Critics have dismissed this move as pulling back from the book’s tougher outcomes, but in the morning-after remains of the two smouldering pyres next to one still untouched, the spectacle seems lonely, small-scale, earthbound, and only faintly commemorative of last night’s frenzied events and what they could possibly have been about, or, indeed, worth. Annaud reinscribes the story with a fresh sense that it is against ignorance, neglect, institutionalised cruelty, the desire to crush individual will and communal spirit, to suppress laughter, that comedy must be mobilised. Not against the innocent, groaning in the dark.
The world of the story is unusually full of exiles from love, either through self-abnegating vows or the genetic hand they’ve been dealt. Adso is a monk, institutionally bound to loneliness like the others, but, unlike the others, young and beautiful, and for one glorious night – or, rather, about 45 glorious seconds – he gets to experience a consummation devoutly to be wished. The book’s fictitious events are set in 1327, and those interested in sleuthing out every trace of debt might observe it as the year of the greatest (fictitious?) event told through ostensible memoirs in literature, when Petrarch supposedly first saw Laura. While she existed to the poet only in name, her corporeal being forever beyond his reach, the girl is to Adso the only physical love of his life, whose language he cannot understand, and whose name he never learns. Annaud, perhaps taking his cue from the hefty nod to Romeo and Juliet in the book’s title, and perhaps from the traditional grammar of screenwriting – not many of the best films end on a dense theological discussion – offers a possible local habitation for the ‘rose’, if not a name. That this is not exclusively about romantic love seems plain. The film’s final moments miraculously channel the book’s insistence on the difficulty, impossibility even, of knowing anything into an eddying celebration of human relationships, love in all its forms, and loss. And this, perhaps, is the greatest of gifts to the semiotician: to end on the one painful mystery that will always slip the net of all description to remain unsolved.
Python’s Life of Brian, which can be felt under the skin of this film, is, make no mistake, one of the great philosophical works of the twentieth century, the stalking horse of its comedy notwithstanding. There, as here, the level of the aim is not so much at organised religion as slipshod interpretation: bad thinking as the prison of the human soul. William wants to teach Adso to read the world’s signs with greater skill, to rescue him from ignorance, just as Adso wants to save the mysterious peasant girl from her poverty. William is in many ways a time traveller, a prefiguration of modernity. He is both William of Occam and Holmes as described by Watson in A Study in Scarlet (the Baskerville connection waving at us like semaphore in case we didn’t already spot where he’s from). He has been dragged hundreds of years out of time into a place not yet ready for him, and it is fitting that he leaves the novel through the back door, passing silently from the pages of history, reminding us he was never in them in the first place.
Our only knowledge of where he might have gone comes from the written work of his loyal pupil. Teaching is one of the many ways we try to free one another, the hope that the student will surpass the master and advance the world by inches. That Adso will not do this is very clear. In this case, it’s too much to ask. But we remember, in the end, that his beloved master’s teachings have survived to us only through his account, and that the outcomes of this stirring detective story were determined long before we began reading. We are reminded that an old man, his master’s spectacles on his nose, left a parchment for the postmodern ironist to discover in an archive in about 650 years’ time. That the ironist chooses not to ironise at the last minute honours the great comic vision of the great comic novel about the great comic text that is forever lost. We learn that the time they spent together changed the man’s life in ways he never forgot, and it is that, ultimately, that he lights on as the most important thing he ever learned. What will survive of us is love.
In grateful and affectionate memory of Umberto Eco (5/1/1932–19/2/2016)