Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

To be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went.

~*~

Now: This is the second step, and the more irritating of the two at that.

Death is a natural for the mystery. Death is itself a mystery, after all. Being a daughter of faith, I learned that death is but a door, a turning at the crossroads. All reach this turning when God says it’s time. Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.

So when it comes to death in a fictional world, I do not take it lightly. In fact, I am infuriated when an author does. Like Eco.

Yes, Eco.

“But Jean, it’s a mystery. People die in mysteries ALL the time.” Well duh. My all-time favorite tv show is Murder, She Wrote, for cryin’ out loud. Once I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I lost myself in the intrigues of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. James,Β Ellis Peters, and Elizabeth George.

Yes. In a mystery, someone dies. A bunch, even.

But those deaths are still not taken lightly. At the very least, those deaths serve the story, and press it forward. Justice is sought, and usually served. If justice is not served, there is at least some sort of reason to answer why.

Does Eco have such deaths? Oh, yes. A number of monks die in The Name of the Rose due to their involvement with something sinister. Their deaths work with the story. Eco even seems to relish the foretelling of their murders, which…eh. A little foreshadowing is fine, now and again, such as when Ado alludes to a future tragedy in the midst of a religious debate:

Perhaps I made a mistake: if I had remained on guard, many other misfortunes would have been averted. but I know this now; I did not know it then.

Or he’ll stick his foreshadowing into the chapter heading to hook the reader:

MATINS: In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.

Yes, it worked on me every time, blast him.

Yes, I’m still infuriated. Not about that–about the fates of two particular characters.

First, the girl. A poor villager smuggled in by monks for sexual favors and paid for with food. The only physical girl character in the novel (as opposed to female saints or witches), our narrator, the novice Adso, discovers her in the kitchen waiting for whomever has bought her that night. But his entry interrupts that, and they…well Adso’s far more poetic about sex than I could ever be. A few chapters later she is discovered by an inquisitor and branded a witch. Adso pleads with his master, William of Baskerville, to save her. He shakes his head. Nothing to be done. She is, as he puts it, “burnt flesh.”

Not that we see her death. We’re just told it will eventually happen in some other town. Adso never sees her after the arrest, and she quickly fades from importance.

I gritted my teeth over this one. So, the character was created to help propel seedy events. Growth of Adso’s character. Expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations back then. Okay. Sure. But her death doesn’t matter? Even the screenwriters of the film version didn’t care for this, and had the girl be saved from the pyre. Saved or not, at least give the girl a chance to finish her life’s arc on the stage instead of off.

But the “death” that REALLY gets me is way, way in the beginning of the novel, with one of the first major characters we meet: Ubertino. An older man, very learned, experiences with the warring Pope and the Emperor, friend of William of Baskerville, and now in hiding for his life awaiting the secret religious debate to take place at this very abbey. At one point in their first conversation, Adso gets a little freaked out by Ubertino’s behavior:

At that moment, terrified, I thought Ubertino was in the power of a kind of holy frenzy, and I feared for his reason. Now, with the distance of time, knowing what I know–namely, that two years later he would by mysteriously killed in a German city by a murderer never discovered–I am all the more terrified, because obviously that evening Ubertino was prophesying.

Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is that there’s no telling who will be killed, when, with what, or why. Because Adso is writing this account years later, we know he survives, but that’s it. We don’t know if William of Baskerville lives through this murder. We only know that one monk has died under suspicious circumstances, but the book is massive (my edition is 538 pages long), so there HAS to be at least another death. Who will it be? Readers want to be invested in the characters. Sure, they want them to live. That makes them read on: so they live.

What we DON’T like is being told: “Sure, this guy will live. For now. He dies later, so you know. His efforts are pretty pointless here. But hey, he lives through this!”

Then what’s the point?

Why should I care about him, if I know he’s going to live through this ordeal only to die for no reason offstage? Any suspense surrounding this character is gone. That means the mystery around this character is gone.

And the last thing a mystery can afford to lose, is mystery.

 

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15 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

    • EXACTLY! I knew you’d get it! It’s one thing for a murder to occur offstage–that makes the mystery. But when it comes to announcing a character’s going to die, and putting stakes upon that character’s death…you don’t just say “well no big deal, really” and then remove the stakes and shuffle the character off. Then why were we supposed to care? GAH I’m all riled up again. Where are my chill pills?!?!?!?!!??!?!?!?!?!
      Ahem.
      xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You are truly hilarious! You had me at the title….
    “Tough tamales” will appeal to brand-new 5th grade graduate Avonlea, who loves tamales and was having one every single day for a while. But I digress, of course! Gotta keep the tradition alive.

    As someone who also lost her father, this section particularly moved me:

    “Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.”

    But even if I hadn’t lost my Dad I found that so poingant and beautifully written.
    “The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.” Brilliant, hands-down. Your friend here is turning green with writer’s envy….a nice, pale green. Not jade green! So I’ll get over it and move on.

    About the two deaths, well, I couldn’t agree with you more. You’re the voice of reason when it comes to “The Name of the Rose”.

    For your next book analysis, I suggest something you haven’t considered yet.
    Here’s the link:

    It’s not as intellectual as Eco’s work, per se, but it’s JOHN NETTLES.
    If it was up to me, he would have a “Sir” in front of his name. You may know this, but Nettles has written several other acclaimed books, such as “Jersey: A Personal History of People and Places” and “Jewels and Jackboots: Hitler’s British Isles, the German Occupation of the British Channel Islands 1940-1945”.

    Off I go – ’tis dinner hour here; it has been a looooong day. Last day of school for the girls!

    take care, and I’ll be thinking of you when we reach my “happy hour” and watch the remainder of “Little Women”. So far Avi likes Jo the best – what a surprise!

    your fan,
    Dyane

    p.s. Name Dropping du Jour:
    my best friend in high school worked at a gourmet cooking supplies-type of shop in Santa Monica.
    He just about died (oops, bad wanna-be pun!) when Angela Lansbury came in and he got to help her!

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOLOLOL Your friend got to help ANGELA LANSBURY?! That’s so…aw man! So cool! (the dead pun’s fine–I can tell you right now I would have passed out at the sight of her!)

      Thanks for all the compliments. Seriously, you make me go beet red! I WILL look into Nettles; I will consider using him, but if nothing else, that German Occupation book sounds fascinating for Bo, who loves reading WWII stuff. Honestly, I’ve been kinda leaning towards studying Agatha Christie next. Mysteries–well, genre writing in general, but cozies in particularly, I think–get a bad rap in university writing programs, and I want to know why.

      PS: The original title was “tough titties,” but that seemed awfully unprofessional… πŸ˜›

      PPS: When I first envisioned this blog, I planned on doing a nonfic series called “Graveyard Run” where I visit family graves and memories. I’m still building the bravery–and brownie points with Bo to watch the kids for a day–to do it. Thanks for helping my bravery stretch just a little further. xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is what the authors do πŸ™‚ . I think that Eco just couldn’t make up his mind about how to kill the character in the book, so he went the easy way – let him live but informed the reader that the guy will be dead soon anyway. No hassle with describing a killer, a weapon, a reason…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hehe. Understand though. I’ve not read any of Eco’s works but It makes me feel like the character was surplus to requirement, though he can’t of been. Maybe Ubertino’s (?) pointless efforts reflect the lives of many people who try in vain to make a difference; some successful in some small way, some in big way and many not at all Maybe Eco was indeed, reflecting how some people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime, disappearing through the wings with the scent of ‘…the world is a stage…’ eau de parfum, lingering behind. Maybe Eco wanted to create that sense of frustration in the reader, particularly as the girl got a similar dismissive treatment. Haven’t read his books to see if there is a particular preoccupation like that. I know he was a philosopher. …Ah, just read now that he was big on semiotics.
    Yep, does nothing for mystery though, Hehe!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, it’s quite possible he wanted that reaction, esp considering the sub-class treatment of females in the medieval time period. You may just be on to something here, and you’ve never read a word! I confess, I only read the book because I’m a fan of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mystery series. Guess I’m a sucker for crime-solving monks. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • I dream one day of being wealthy enough to have an extensive library with books from every corner of the world. Cadfael I’m familiar with. I’m not drawn to historical fiction, however I do have soft spots and can get easily drawn into Jacobean and Medieval drama,(if I had the time) Witch trials fascinate me (one day I will study these more). One historical novel that absolutely routed me to the spot – it will be up there in my list as one of the finest pieces of literature, ever written is Patrick Suskinds ‘Perfume’. A writing Epiphany for me all those years ago and still echos within me (never watched the film, never will). πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I would have been a little swayed by Alan Rickman, but once you read the book it’s very hard to see a film of it -even with the most sensitive producer and director- being given any justice. Highly recommended to be placed on a reading list. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

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