Fueled by bookish ingenuity instead of flesh-and-blood vitality, this brilliant Borgesian-Nabokovian historical--part...



Fueled by bookish ingenuity instead of flesh-and-blood vitality, this brilliant Borgesian-Nabokovian historical--part pageant, part whodunit--shines with a distinctly dry light: Eco is a professor of semiotics (at Bologna University) with a versatile style (admirably handled by translator Weaver) and an awesome knowledge of the Middle Ages The story concerns a series of murders at a mythical Benedictine abbey somewhere near the Ligurian coast in 1327. The master detective is a wise and tolerant Franciscan scholar, Brother William of Baskerville, while a young Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk, plays the part both of narrator and inevitable sidekick/apprentice-sleuth. The dense and finely spun mystery eventually revolves around the last remaining copy of Aristotle's second book of the Poetics (now lost), his writings on comedy. And this precious manuscript is not just a deadly weapon--its pages have been dusted with poison by a fanatical blind monk--but its imagined contents come to symbolize humanity's ultimate defense against the bigotry and political horror swirling around in the world outside the monastery: lethal feuds between Emperor Louis IV and Pope John XXII; the Inquisition; witchhunts; pogroms; the Albigensian crusade; Fra Dolcino's bloody uprising and its far more savage suppression. Finally, then, when the manuscript is deliberately burned, the apocalyptic conflagration suggests the triumph of a very 20th-century terrorism that aims to mangle mind and body: the insidious obscurantist, Jorge of Burgos, may have been exposed, but a once-peaceful monastic microcosm now lies in ruins. . . and Brother William is doomed to die in the plague of 1348 (which may be meant as a parallel to nuclear holocaust). Eco has the learning to paint an ornate medieval panorama, the inventiveness to fill it with elegant conundrums (labyrinthine architecture, recondite Latin allusions, etc.). But his characters are stiff and two-dimensional; they talk too much, if eloquently; and Eco may ultimately be less a novelist than a preacher. Still: a rich, fascinating failure--with clever, tapestry-like appeal for a limited, historically-minded audience.

Pub Date: June 22, 1983

ISBN: 0307264890

Page Count: -

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1983

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