This is another book that I have surprisingly not read until recently. And this is despite the fact that I am an Umberto Eco fan, and have read most of his other books---but I had not read this book, his first novel, and still probably the most popular. My edition, an English translation published in 1984, has a quote on the back to the effect that Umberto Eco had written his first novel! It is hard to imagine, now, an audience surprised by that one Italian semiotician writing a novel, but at one point, Eco was more known as a literary critic than a writer of experimental (but action-packed) novels. And I read this book backwards: I had already read Foucault's Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana before I read it, so it seemed slightly more tame, linear and less "meta" than his later works. But for readers at the time, it was probably quite a surprise!

The Name of the Rose is set in a medieval monastery, with the main characters all being monks of different orders. Within that, there are two major plots or themes. The first is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Our narrator (who is a monk) is the Watson to a Sherlock Holmes figure (who is also a monk) who is investigating a murder in a monastery. The murders quickly multiply, each one being more bizarre and filled with seeming symbolism than the other. The monastery turns out to be a labyrinth of hidden chambers and not-so-hidden rivalries, with our investigator, Brother William, being surprised and confused despite his great logical powers of deduction. In the parallel part of the book, there is a political conflict between The Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire over whether poverty in monastic orders is heretical. This gets to be very confusing, as the different factions and alliances are described at great length. This also provides some of the urgency for Brother William's investigation---the monastery is scheduled to be the meeting site for a conference between the two sides, and the escalating death toll is on course to derail the conference.

My main question while reading this book was what was the most important thing for Umberto Eco, and just how important it was. Was the deep dives into medieval theology and politics an important part of the text, or was it basically a shaggy dog story? Was he trying to draw a topical connection between the social situation at the time of writing and current events, or was it all just a red herring for the reader? In the book's climactic scene, Brother William makes statements to the effect that our minds make patterns out of chaos where none exist, but it isn't clear whether that is William or Eco talking. The book also has so many allusions, most of which even a well-educated reader would miss (the opening line of the novel is a reference to Snoopy, for example), that it is hard to see what is a point, and where Eco is just playing.

I will say, however, that in contrast to the last book I read that made me think "but why?", the "but why" in this book felt more amusing. Over 40 years after its publication, this book is now considered a classic, and I enjoyed it. Even when I didn't know why.