Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
I think my brain is still fizzling from this very intense metaphysical drama/ murder mystery/ theological puzzle/ etc. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and was entrapped in the medieval period for a five days straight, but the fact that Eco wrote it as a novel putting flesh on a rumination of cosmological theories and ideals (which is not how I affirm fiction to act) soured his literary triumph (for me).
The body of the novel is posited as a translation of a manuscript written by a Benedictine monk in the fourteenth century, Adso of Melk. In the manuscript, Adso finally sets to rest what happened in his years as a novice, being the disciple of the famed English logician and monk, Brother William of Baskerville, who was called upon to investigate sinister happenings at a wealthy Italian Benedictine abbey. Brother William, having been an Inquisitor of the Roman Catholic Church (before the Spanish Inquisition, but nevertheless dealing very largely with heresy), comes from Oxford and is a disciple of Roger Bacon. If William is portrayed through his sharp observations and support of reason as the Sherlock Holmes of the ecclesiastical and monastic communities, Adso is his young Watson.
Eco's novel is relentlessly researched and believable. One can only imagine he'd lived such a life, being so thorough in presenting the world of a fourteenth century monk, the hours of prayer and work (Ora et labora) in the scriptorium, the detailed hierarchy of the order, the differences between the Franciscan and Cluniac communities, the political circles of power and corruption in the Holy Roman Empire, the schism between the pope in Avignon and the pope in Rome - but above all, Eco's medieval voice is authentic and consistent. His characters feel the desperation of living in the middle ages. They are learned, but feel the burden of knowledge, the possibility of blasphemy, the seductions of heresy, of pride and of power. In this claustrophobic circle, there is no room for the underprivileged, poverty is potentially heretical, and the Devil lurks everywhere in the guise of a Lilith-like woman.
Authority is absolute, sin requires penance, and heresy demands torture or death by fire. Salvation and illumination rests in literacy, and these Benedectines prize their learning, their precious vellum scrolls and manuscripts above all else. Beyond the schisms, the theological and philosophical banter, beyond the apocalyptic-style murders, the intrigue, and hidden vices of the monks, this novel is about the labyrinthine library at night.