The Thorny Issue in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose Is Murder in the Monastery

updated 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Perched on his doghouse roof, Snoopy, the beloved beagle of Peanuts fame, occasionally dabbles in the art of novel writing. The usual opening—regardless of what follows: "It was a dark and stormy night...." Across the Atlantic, Italian author Umberto Eco also addressed himself to the weather in the opening line of his No. 1 best-seller, The Name of the Rose (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $15.95). "It was a beautiful morning at the end of November," the book begins. Is the tale wagging the dog? "Yes, indeed," chuckles Eco. "The beginning of my novel is an homage to Snoopy. I wrote the preface to the first edition of Linus, the magazine featuring Peanuts, in Italy. It is normal in Europe for intellectuals and scholars to be interested in a wide range of things."

Eco's eclectic interests are abundantly displayed in The Name of the Rose, a first novel that has awed the critics and defied probability. A year ago Harcourt editors assumed fiction by an unknown Italian author would have a small readership, requiring a first printing of only 5,000 copies. But after a more thorough reading, the editors reconsidered, and it's a good thing. To date, 150,000 copies have been printed, and it is even outselling Return of the Jedi, the storybook based on the film.

All the more amazing, Eco's novel is set in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy in the 14th century. Its characters are gardeners, librarians, herbalists and dour, brown-frocked friars. Despite a dash of discreet sex (a beautiful young village girl seduces a novice, and two of the monks share a little brotherly love), the author devotes more pages to theological discourse than to intercourse. Readers seem mesmerized by the metaphysics as well as the suspense of the plot, essentially an old-fashioned mystery about seven murders in seven days (all the victims are monks).

The author, who has managed to mix the best of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and St. Thomas Aquinas, is a bespectacled professore at the University of Bologna. Eco, 51, is well known in Europe as an expert in semiotics, the study how cultures communicate through signs and symbols—as, in art, advertising, television. "I try to understand how human communication works at all levels," says Eco, "whether it is Finnegan's Wake or Little Orphan Annie." A prolific writer, Umberto has previously published 15 books, including six on semiotics and two on the mass media's aesthetics.

His foray into novel writing was strictly accidental. "Usually a man of my age flees his wife and family for a chorus girl and takes her to Monte Carlo," says Eco. "Instead, I wrote a novel." Though critics have characterized Umberto's unique mid-life diversion as everything from an allegory to a roman a clef, the author thinks of it as a highbrow mystery. Two elements of his book, he notes, are "medieval roots and skepticism."

Eco has been steeped in matters medieval ever since his youth in the 12th-century fortress-city of Alessandria in northern Italy. The son of an office worker, Umberto was a precocious student who later went on to immerse himself in philosophy at the University of Turin. After graduating in 1954, he helped develop cultural programs for RAI, the Italian government's fledgling television network. Then came a 17-year career as the nonfiction editor for Bompiani, a Milanese publishing house, where he met graphic artist Renate Ramge in 1960. They were married two years later.

The Ecos eventually settled in a large apartment in Milan, where Renate teaches art. Umberto travels the 100 miles to Bologna, where he teaches three days a week. Their two children, Carlotta, 18, and Stefano, 20, who are students, live at home. Each summer and during holidays the family gathers at "Ca' Chiarino," their 18th-century stone house on a hilltop near Urbino. When Umberto first contemplated buying the 50-room house, which has three-foot-thick walls, secret passages and wine cellars filled with wooden casks, his wife asked why they should invest in this relic. "Because on a dark and stormy night," responded her husband, "I want to be able to pass through these 50 rooms holding a flashlight and feel that I'm in Count Dracula's castle."

The same whimsical spirit of romantic adventure pervades Eco's writing, and accounts, perhaps, for the uncanny success of his first novel. Eco professes to be mystified by his sudden celebrity. "Asking me to explain the success is like asking a beautiful girl why she is desirable," he shrugs. Though he has no immediate plans for another novel, Eco has duly inscribed his master theory for success in the back of his mind. "You take a lot of theology, a lot of philosophy, a lot of Latin and very little sex, and that's a splendid best-seller," he says with gusto. Until the blossoming of The Name of the Rose, even Snoopy wouldn't have believed a line like that.

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