#Lessons Learned from #UmbertoEco: 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. JamesEllis 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.

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

Eco, from my meager understanding, was an extremely brilliant individual. Speaker of many tongues, student of many histories–i.e., a brainy dude. One can expect that when an intellectual someone wishes to write  a story set in the distant past, that someone will immerse in all aspects of the culture, and come forward with a riveting tale.

For the record, I LIKE The Name of the Rose. I do. But at the same time, I’m not sure how to feel about all of this:

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Just look at all those not-English words! I mean, I figured there would be some Latin. It is a mystery inside a monastery set in fourteenth century, after all. But I have my limits. And there are GOBS of sections like this. Was I warned? Yes. “You can usually get the gist from context, but then you miss out on crucial stuff. Keep a dictionary handy.”

Outwardly I gave an absent assent, but inwardly my mind is groaning as loud as a kid told she can’t lift shirts to poke belly buttons anymore. (Am I the only one who had a daughter go through this phase?) I read from 5-6am if work and/or kids permit. The last thing I want to do at 5am is conjugate a pluperfect verb and decipher which noun is in its ablative case. No. Thank You.

Thankfully I discovered a blog that did all the translations–Rapid Diffusion. This, I always kept handy when I read Eco, and yes, having the translations does make a difference.

So is it wrong to make readers work? No. Granted, the idea of translating all that Latin intimidated, but it did not deter. I still had my Latin books from high school, so I was totally ready…to contact my classmate who could translate Latin as she read it without notes or dictionaries or anything by the flipping brilliant age of 16. (Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.) I wanted to read this book. I knew this book was going to require more of me than other literary fare. I didn’t care. I wanted to read it. If my friend couldn’t help me, then (insert gulping sound) I would give the translating a go.

In an earlier post, I discussed Diana Wynne Jones’ lament over the dumbing-down of fiction for adults, while kids don’t mind working their brains to appreciate a story. When I first cracked open The Name of the Rose and saw all the Latin, I thought of this. Maybe translating several dozen pages’ worth of Latin is a touch extreme, but shouldn’t books written for adults be at least a LITTLE challenging? I like my chocolate muffins of fantasy or mystery, sure, but veg is good for the body AND the brain, and Eco provides a cornucopia of veg with this novel. Yeah, I had help with the Latin, but the history is so complexly woven with the mystery, and the dialogue so dense without action (a topic I very much want to discuss in another post) that my brain had to chew it all, slowly, before fully appreciating what it had just devoured.

904cea2232616.56012d54f1266I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past. Writers fill their worlds with what matters to the story; to pass over a description, a conversation, or a verse in another language is, well, rather akin to ignoring someone in conversation, isn’t it? Just, turning up the nose and continuing on with the person you like because he’s the interesting one.

No.

A writer should not overwhelm their story with innocuous minutia, and a reader should not skip around and still expect to understand the story without a hitch. Both parties must work, and work hard, to truly bring a book to life.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.