A Flower that Withers Not

“The rose”, wrote Umberto Eco, “is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”. The NAME OF THE ROSE, likewise, is a book on both everything and nothing. Rolling historical novel, murder mystery, metafiction, philosophical novel all into one, Eco’s classic work is ultimately a profound meditation on man’s eternal quest for meaning and how, in the end, it yields nothingness.
Suman Mukherjee reads this timeless tale. 

A fair chance led me to pick this book up from a friend’s shelf and once into the first few pages, there was no looking back as I found myself amidst the desolate lands of a 13th c. hillside monastery where mysteries

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The remote monastery and its dark secrets | art: Prapti Roy

hang like a gloomy fog and the medieval spirit oozes out of the grotesque designs of the gothic architecture (and boy that was enchanting). With great excitement and keener interest I turned the pages of the VINTAGE paperback edition illustrated with red and golden carvings on the cover and the monochrome sketches of hooded monks inside. Eco adds to the enigma by devising a meta-fictional ploy claiming that he himself began with a ragged manuscript written by a certain Abbe Vallet and read with fascination the story of Adso of Melk. This manuscript which came into his hands was stolen under mysterious circumstances and was never returned. But before this accident occurred, in a single burst of energy he was able to translate it in his notebook.

This ‘translated’ narrative of Adso is divided into seven chapters equivalent to the seven days he spent in the monastery and each day is further carved up into periods corresponding to the liturgical hours. And on each of those days in that remote monastery that harbours dark secrets in its unfathomable chambers, there occurs murder of a monk. Just after the first murder, in there rides a Franciscan monk of great wisdom and intelligence, William of Baskerville and with him his novice, Adso of Melk, the narrator. The abbot, troubled because of the murder that took place last night and the risk of infamy to his institution at the hands of the Catholic authority that rides to settle in there for a great council, asks for William’s help in seeking the truth behind the unfortunate death of the young monk. William, once an inquisitor, readily accepts the offer, gets busy in investigating the case

Venerable Jorge | artwork: Katie Lyn

and begins to unearth secrets that were unheeded, or closely guarded until his advent. More terrible events follow and William gets entangled in a cobweb of crime and controversies. Behind all the mysteries, William suspects, there are the dark chambers of the library, its treasures secretly guarded by the chief librarian Malachi and the abbot. These two are also guided by an old and blind monk, worn with wisdom and bent with the weight of knowledge, venerable Jorge. His all-seeing mind guards the store of forbidden books, books written by infidel poets and particularly one book concerning ‘laughter’. Why ‘laughter’ is so essential a subject to be hidden away? Perhaps Jorge understands that in it lies the doom of all systems. As the mysterious book changes hands, more people succumb to death and the Papal council draws near every day to shape the fortunes of many.

This Papal council comes to reach a settlement between the Church and the monarch on matters of dominion over the state. They are also supposed to iron out some crucial differences between the  Franciscans, Benedictines, Dolcinians and Augustinians and other such sects named after the saints and monks who started preaching in their own ways under the aegis of the great Catholic order. A reader like me, uninitiated to the history of Christianity, will need to retire to the library time and again if he is to grasp the complete significance of this momentous council. More confusion and madness grip the reader when he finds scholars and monks participating in vitriolic debates on whether Christ laughed or not! Or whether Christ was poor or not! At a time when the world of learning was reinvigorating itself with pathbreaking discoveries and inventions (some of which are mentioned in the novel) the Church became the jest of History.

But history doesn’t only constitute the Church or the throne or even the world of knowledge. Each monk in the monastery carries the burden of his own past. In course of William’s Investigation, Salvatore, the beastlike figure who speaks a ghastly language and Remigio his benefactor are discovered with their past tales, that they were sinners and avid followers of Fra Dolcino, a 12th century heretic who declared war against the papal authority and sought his glory through plundering and robbing the properties of the church. He was lacerated and burnt at stake. How was this man like? In Remigio’s words: “Dolcino was tall and strong, he had a great devil’s beard and red hair that fell in curls to his shoulder blades…Dolcino made men fear and women cry out with pleasure.” And he continues, “But when they tortured him he, too, cried, in pain, like a woman, like a calf…”. These ‘heretics’ carry a great load of past stories behind and those who rightfully condemn them, are not free from a tainted past either. Abo the Abbot too had taken an unfair chance to climb to his rank even though he did not possess the qualities. Such stories lay buried under pompous Catholic garments while fell deeds are vaunted above.

Sean Connery as William of Baskerville in the 1986 film version | portrait by Dani Medrano

All stories thus are forged with embellishments and William, the wise, sees it. His understanding streches beyond the vast treasure of books that lies within the great libraries of all Christendom and he knows how history is falsified through the words of men. He realises that if all the claimed relics of the wooden cross that bore the Lord’s weight have been put together, would create an entire forest. Through him, the author says things that should have been said in that age. Like a true scholar who values knowledge above all, he is without a twinge of pity in his character and  with adamantine resolution, he triumphs over the chief villain whom he finds in the darkest corner of the library only to lose him forever.  William and his friend Ubertino of Casale (aye! the wonderful names), when they enrich Adso the novice with their great worldly wisdom,  remind me of some lines I read long ago :

“Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

We have lost all receptivity. Our senses receive little. Since when did we abandon wisdom for knowledge? The day we turned to public schools for producing smart kids and shine in the Olympiads, the day we gave up the old system of rearing a child under the guidance of a true mentor, often a scholar monk because it is from them the fountain of all virtues flow freely. Ubertino says once, “Mors est quies vistoris – finis est omnis laboris”, (in this life only death ponders, all else is nothing but a trivia) and such words can open up vast avenues untraversed. Adso puts up random questions, William answers, sometimes ready and sometime hesitant. That is where the knot grows tight. A teacher becomes a polestar rather than a walking stick.

Bottom collage
Eco portrait: Suman Mukherjee | Book cover from Amazon | Artwork: Siddhartha Dey

Latin expressions galore in the pages of the book but they are only expected in a book on medieval church. The name of the book itself comes from the Latin expression (the closing sentence of the book): “stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” (The primordial rose lives in its name, we hold empty names). I finished the book deep at midnight, with the world fast asleep around me and as I read this last sentence, an emptiness swelled up from deep inside and a sudden epiphany dawned upon me that truly we live in a world of empty stories spun around empty centers. All empty. And if I have to live amidst empty desert sands someday, I will choose this book as my pillow and plate. Empty plate it might be, though.

Title Photograph: Soumya Shubhra Ghosh
Next post on 24th March

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