How might we explain the best-selling success of a novel by an Italian academic set in a medieval abbey where the focus of monastic life (along with prayer) is the preservation of a vast library? What fascination might the theological and political disputes of the 14th century hold for the 20th-century reader - the rivalries between Pope and emperor, bishops and abbots, between reformist friars who preach poverty and wealthy clerics who support the church's claims to property? Is all this palatable only because it is part of an ingenious detective story in which a Sherlock Holmesian English friar, aptly named Brother William of Baskerville, assisted by a naive young monk called Adso , solves the puzzle of a series of lurid and mysterious deaths?
Mysteries, to be sure, are always popular, in large part because they deal with the emotionally charged topics of crime and violence. ''The Name of the Rose'' is no exception. The story unfolds in an atmosphere thick with hostility and intrigue. What the great medieval historian Huizinga called the mingled odor of blood and roses is in the air, with the emphasis on the blood. Innocent people are being burned as witches and heretics. And the corpses of monks keep turning up when least expected. It would certainly be impossible to accuse Eco of having written a dry academic novel.
But mysteries also draw their appeal from another source, the basic reason we read at all: the desire to find out, to discover explanations for the unexplained, to search out meaning. Linguists and semioticians remind us that reading itself - from the primary act of deciphering letters and words to the final act of interpreting what we've read - is like solving a mystery by piecing together signs and clues. Who better, perhaps, to write a detective story than a semiotician like Umberto Eco - a theorist and practitioner of the abstruse academic art that studies signs and meanings?
In this story, the detective is both practitioner and theorist: He must not only solve the mystery, but must also explain his newfangled method of trial and error to his young assistant, whose more traditional training has taught him that one reasons by starting with a universal truth, deriving individual cases from unchallenged axioms, not by inventing and then testing a series of dubious hypotheses.
Objects, as Eco the semiotician points out, can function as signs. William's spectacles signify the knowledge and experimentation that went into their making and the sharpness of vision their wearer strives for. Merely to possess knowledge is not enough, William feels: One must learn to see and think with greater clarity and flexibility. Yet to Adso, and to others still more steeped than he in medieval tradition, nothing can be clearer than the absolute truth of authority.
For many of us, heirs of the Enlightenment, the process by which we formulate and test hypotheses seems ''only natural.'' It is anything but. By setting his story at a time when other forms of thought prevailed, Eco re-creates a sense of the difficulty and challenge of a method we take for granted.
William, however, is not merely a kind of protoscientist. He is also a protosemiotician. A true man of the early Renaissance, he (again like Roger Bacon) is just as interested in the secrets of books as in the secrets of nature. Indeed, another factor that saves ''The Name of the Rose'' from a dry academicism is Eco's ability to evoke the passions of the intellectual life. Adso (who narrates the story) speaks for William, for himself, and for most of his brother monks, when he says:
'' . . . What the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks.''
And a little later:
''I was not surprised that the mystery of the crimes should involve the library. For these men devoted to writing, the library was at once the celestial Jerusalem and an underground world on the border between terra incognita and Hades.''
Although ''The Name of the Rose'' is not a story of semiotics, Eco the novelist shares with Eco the semiotician a feeling for the world as a place rich with possible meanings. His novel owes some share of its success to the fact that it has a great deal to communicate, from the charmingly archaic lore of gems to its treatment of topics just as relevant today as over six centuries ago: censorship, fanaticism, the perils and promises of natural science, and the pitfalls of political intrigue.
Semiotics, or the study of signs, is a word derived from the Greek semeion (sign), sema (mark), and smasia (meaning). There are several kinds of ''meaning, '' all of them interrelated. We speak, for instance, of the meaning of life, by which we usually mean its ultimate purpose or justification. Semiotics is less interested in what we mean than in how we mean. It takes for its subject the process by which meanings are communicated. The semiotician, as described by Eco in ''A Theory of Semiotics'' (1976), studies words, pictures, gestures, objects, symbolic and verbal languages, ideas, and ideologies insofar as they may serve as signs - that is, vehicles of meaning. Eco's keen awareness of the shifting relations between signs and meanings makes him wary about the dangers of reading or understanding anything too literally. Any given sign may have many possible meanings, and there is always some gapbetween sign and content. ''(S)emiotics,'' he declares at one point (italics his), ''is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something can't be used to tell a lie, conversely it can't be used to tell the truth: it can't be used 'to tell' at all.''
''The Name of the Rose'' is filled with characters in search of so-called truth, but those who insist on taking everything literally turn out to be enemies of life itself. When William and Adso finally confront the murderer, they are face to face with a man who will do anything to preserve the grim solemnity of what he calls ''Truth'' from the perils of laughter. What would happen, he demands, ''if the rhetoric of conviction were replaced by the rhetoric of mockery?'' William replies that he, for one, would prefer a world where he might match wits with others - rather than a world where people die and kill to preserve ''truths'' that are never questioned. One needn't be a semiotician to appreciate William's defense of doubt and laughter.