Review – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

 

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Late in the year 1327 Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, and Adso, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy. Winter is rapidly approaching, and so is both a legation led by a notorious inquisitor and another that contains that inquisitor’s implacable enemies. William is to speak in intercession between them.

But once they arrive at the monastery, a series of brutal murders begins, and, at the request of the Abbot, William and Adso are drawn into the investigation.

Every detective story needs a detective, and in The Name of the Rose it is William of Baskerville, who indeed uses logic and observation to make deductions, much like a medieval Sherlock Holmes.

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As the plot develops, there are long theological debates centred around both the poverty of Christ and the question of whether Christ laughed. Questions I have little knowledge of, but which read as authentic to me. But these debates are central to the plot. On the interpretation of Christ’s poverty alone, men and women are accused of heresy and burnt at the stake.

But everything is centred upon the monastery’s library. This library is the greatest library of its time in Europe, containing innumerable rare, important and beautiful volumes. At the centre of the story lies a mysterious and forbidden book, and this book lies at the centre of the labyrinthine library where only the Librarian and his assistant are permitted. But are the murders being committed to get hold of this book or is there another reason? Could they, in fact, be connected with the predictions in the Book of Revelations?

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This is such a well-known book that I found I forgot it was a translation from the original I was reading. Much like the Bible, of course, which point is salient to the monks, and certainly in medieval times this interpretation was a matter of life or death to thousands.

But the translation of  prose does not pose the same problems as the translation of verse, and I don’t suppose the English translation is any different from the Italian original. But the potentials made me smile

As a long book, it provides a canvas for long descriptions, both of the abbey and the associated buildings – essentially a castle – and of the long debates between the monks and the other players. At times there is undoubtedly a temptation to skip some of these, but the reader is adequately rewarded for persevering in that the descriptions paint a powerful picture of the place and time, while the debates tell much about the importance of religion and the ridiculous interpretations of every word of the Bible that quite literally governed the lives and deaths of everyone at that time.

A word about the pace of the book, though. Some readers may find it a little slow (although if those readers skip the debates and longer descriptions it is as fast-paced as any other), but remember it is not just a detective story, it is also a historical novel and moves at the pace one would expect of a book of that genre.

I read this a very long time ago, and although I remember it as having been a very good book, I had forgotten just how good. I will unhesitatingly give it five stars.

And the meaning behind the title? Well, you need to wait until the end to find out, and then you need to understand Latin…

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The Enduring Lie of a Golden Age – Part 2…This is Personal

Two weeks ago I wrote of the idea so many people have that somewhere in the past there was a ‘Golden Age’ when everything was so much better than today.

I am now going to post what might seem a bit of a contradiction to what I wrote then.

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More and more, we are losing our connection with the natural world.

Everyone would have a different opinion on what is meant by the phrase ‘quality of life’, but for me if I am surrounded by concrete structures, with a lack of trees and flowers and birds, animals and insects, if the building I am in consists of electronic devices, plastic, steel, and artificial floor coverings, if my engagement with the day to day tasks of this building consists of pressing buttons, then I feel my own quality of life is much diminished.

A common post appearing on Facebook is of a picture of a cabin or cottage in the wilderness somewhere, with the caption ‘Could you live here for a month without TV or phone signal or internet for $25,000?’

Could I do it? I’d bite your hand off for the chance to do it. And I wouldn’t even need the money as an incentive.

No press-the-button entertainment. Setting and lighting a log fire instead of switching on the heating. No dishwasher. No constant barrage of emails, texts and phone calls. No street lights – or streets.

I’d bite yer hand off.

Whether I am at home, working, or walking in the country, always there seems to be the sound of aircraft passing overhead. Day and night. Constantly.

And unless you’re in the middle of a national park, there always seems to be traffic noise. Even when I’m walking in the midst of woodland, or through fields, it’s always present as a background noise.

And anywhere near a road or street, it is just constant. And I find that extremely stressful.

This is one reason why I love being amongst mountains. Usually, they are remote enough that the traffic noise is finally silenced. Frequently, they are away from air routes. And, of course, there are far fewer people around. And those that are there don’t usually seem to be glued to mobile phones or playing music.

And I’m nostalgic. Well, I’m in my sixties now, I’m allowed to be. And that brings us back to the post about a supposed golden age. Nostalgia is a yearning for the past, with the inference that it was better than the present day. There are, of course, many things about today that are much less than perfect – I’ve called out a few of the things I don’t like earlier in this post – but only a fool would deny that huge medical advances have improved all our lives for the better, social security has largely alleviated the horrors of abject poverty and, at least in the affluent west, our lives are not subject to the whims of despots.

But although I can expect to live to a greater age than my forebears – at least in theory – I would be willing to trade some of that for a time when life was less complicated, a life where I didn’t feel constantly bombarded by social media and advertising. A life that was lived more slowly.

Not a Golden Age, certainly, but one I would happily live in.

Bob on Holiday

Just in case you were wondering where he was, Bob has been on holiday. He’s back now, though.

And actually, he’s rather cross.

Now, lot’s of people return from holiday having had a wonderful time and feeling a bit tetchy that they have to come back to the daily grind, but it’s not like that.

No, Bob thinks we’ve all been lied to.

He went away to a holiday enclave in a West African country – or so he says. Bob’s sense of geography being what it is, I wouldn’t be too certain of the destination without checking his passport stamps first. And I wouldn’t do that. So I’ll take his word for it for now.

‘Now, I’m no fool,’ he said, looking at me.

‘No, of course not, Bob,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely not. Anything but. In fact, anyone who says…’ My words died away as I heard Bob’s wife, Gina, laughing somewhere behind me. ‘Go on,’ I ended, lamely.

‘Well, we read all the time that this is one of the poorest countries in the world,’ he continued, ‘yet I’ve never been to a nicer place! The hotel was really luxurious! Food was brilliant. All the staff were wonderful – they were smartly dressed and they couldn’t do enough for you! There were masses of security men all around the perimeter, mind you, but I don’t know what they were there for. And the beach was fantastic!’

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‘Was it just you on the beach?’

‘No, there were dozens of us.’

‘Any local people?’

‘No, they don’t go there, apparently. They don’t like sitting around on the beach like we do.

‘Did you go outside the hotel grounds at all, Bob?’

‘Yeah, we went to a village to see local artists at work. I loved the village. It’s such a minimalist lifestyle. They don’t waste time or money on all those pointless things that we think are so essential in the west.’

‘Like what?’

‘All that rubbish we don’t need!’ he said, heatedly. ‘They live a simple, healthy, lifestyle, and what matters to them are the things that are really important.’

‘Like what?’ I repeated.

‘Well, simple food, for example. It’s much healthier, you know. You don’t come across any of the locals there who are overweight.’

‘What is this diet, then? Do you know?’

‘Well, mostly they make a sort of porridge out of some local grain, apparently.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, no. Of course not! They usually have it with, er beans. And onions.’

‘It doesn’t sound very exciting.’

‘Food doesn’t need to be exciting! It’s there to keep you alive!

It was a side of Bob I’d never seen before, and, to be honest, it was a bit scary. I never realised he could be so evangelical. At least, not about things like that. I’m used to him banging on about how wonderful a new beer is that he has discovered, or about his favourite pizza topping (which I’m not going to talk about here, but…pineapple on pizza…how could you?), but now he had all the fervour of a fresh convert to some extreme religion.

‘And then there are the houses they live in,’ he continued.

‘The houses?’

‘Yes. Gloriously simple and uncomplicated!’

‘As in small and built of odd pieces of driftwood and plastic sheeting?’

‘Exactly!’ He smiled warmly. ‘I love the way they make use of what’s locally available to build with. It keeps the costs down, and reduces the environmental impact of transporting thinks like bricks from far away. Simple.’

‘But would you want to live in one of those?’

‘I wouldn’t mind. I mean, what else do you need? Just some sort of bed in there and, oh, a table, I suppose. And a couple of chairs.’

‘But you just told me how luxurious the hotel was, and how much you enjoyed it.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down, was I? But apparently it’s because us Westerners are all just so soft and pampered. The native people don’t live like that at all.’

‘So you say. Does this mean you’re going to change how you live, then, Bob?’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s particularly practical in the West.

‘I suppose not. Tell me about the artists you went to visit, then.’

‘Ah, yes. Mainly carvers. Lovely wood; mainly animals and masks. I bought a couple. Look, that’s one of them.’ He pointed to a beautifully carved and polished elephant in black wood, standing on the mantelpiece. ‘It cost the equivalent of about two pounds in our money.’

‘That seems very cheap.’

‘I know, but it’s a lot to them. And it’s putting money into the local economy.’

‘Who did you give the money to? The chap who carved it?’

‘No, there was a bloke who showed us round. Nice guy in a suit. Looked very smart. We paid him.’

‘I don’t suppose the carver was in a suit.’

‘Of course not! You wouldn’t wear one of those while you were working, would you?’

‘Describe him, then.’

‘Well, he was wearing a pair of shorts.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing else. That was it. they could have done with a wash, though, I must admit.’ He put his head to one side and stared into the distance. ‘And a bit of sewing.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Really, he could have done with a new pair of shorts. They were pretty ghastly.’

‘Maybe the nice man in the suit will buy him a pair.’ Bob smiled happily.

‘I’m sure he will!’

Despair – a poem.

She counts the tomato flowers:

One, two, three, four,

On the stunted plant.

 

Forever waiting.

Hoping….still hoping.

 

Old plastic sheeting and palm fronds.

Dry ground and hot sun.

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Stunted children,

One, two, three, four.

With spindle legs,

And hard, round stomachs,

Lie beneath the palm fronds.

 

Silently.

 

Flies,

Around dry mouths,

And dull eyes.

 

A few onions,

Some spinach.

Dry soil.

 

He was a farmer.

Drought.

Poor harvests.

And debt.

 

All he grew was hunger.

***

This year, he takes another loan to buy seeds

But this year will be different.

He will keep one tenth of the crop

For the seeds

 

Next year,

There will be no more debt.

 

No more hunger.

 

There is a harvest.

Jubilation.

 

Next year,

Sterile seeds.

 

Although he has paid back some money,

The debt has trebled.

***

That land was his,

Over there,

On the other side of the village.

 

That land covered in waste,

Hope buried under rubbish.

The future smothered with despair.

 

The land that belongs to someone who lives

In the nearby town.

Someone who has never seen it.

 

The next day,

She pulls up one onion.

Picks some spinach.

Boils some water for her children.

One, two three…

 

Her fatherless children.

***

In India every year, large numbers of farmers take their own lives when they become trapped in a cycle of poverty, high-interest debt, and bad harvests. And to compound their problems, certain huge multi-national companies are developing seeds that produce only sterile plants, meaning that the farmer cannot use harvested seed to grow new crops, and has no choice but to buy seed again the following year, sinking further into that hopeless spiral.

The government seems unwilling or unable to do anything to break this cycle.

A Limo in Lima…

…something that ought to be a cautionary tale.

It was a long time ago, now, but I am sure these things still happen. I was sent by the company I then worked for, to Lima, Peru. My role there was to carry out some training of half a dozen local men who had been recruited to operate the computers in our branch office.

Now, I have never been what could be described as a ‘snappy dresser’. I incline towards what can best be described as a ‘casual’ look, although I have at times been unfairly described as a ‘scruffy bugger’, and no one looks their best after a journey of over 24 hours, with a couple of flight changes and a certain amount of time spent hanging around in airports.

And thus it was I emerged into South America haggard and unshaven, sporting a pair of old jeans and a tee shirt, picked up my battered rucksack from the carousel, then looked around for whoever was meeting me.

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We’ll blend in. No one will us notice us in our big, clean, shiny black limo.

I was accosted by a smart suit and tie which was housing a short man who looked like a mafia boss, but who was affable and friendly and directed me to my transport.

A huge, black, limousine.

Now, in some other circumstances I might have quite enjoyed the ride, since it was an experience I had never had before (or since, as it happens), but we then proceeded to drive through massive slum areas where most of the ‘housing’ appeared to lack even a roof. The road was pitted with potholes, most of the traffic consisted of battered buses, lorries and cars, and poverty seeped out of everything that could be seen.

I have never been so embarrassed.

Every time the car stopped, I wondered whether we would get attacked and robbed – we certainly attracted a lot of attention, all of it the wrong kind as far as I was concerned. And after I was dropped off at the hotel where I would be staying, I was left wondering just who the hell that was meant to impress?

Me? If so it failed abysmally. My (already somewhat low) opinion of the company I worked for simply plummeted further.

The locals? If that was the case, then God forgive the b*stards that thought of it.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the thinking behind that?

We’re better than you are!

I don’t buy into this ‘My country is better than yours’ crap.

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Are we talking about the political systems? I suppose we are, because that’s what seems to be grabbing all the headlines.

Yet the countries that seem to be the subjects of this particular debate are all, on the surface, at least, democracies. So, no difference then?

Hmm…

It might be ‘Our country’s values’, of course, because that’s another hot one at the mo.

Hang on, though, what does that mean? People were banging on about that yesterday, but I’m more than a little uncertain whether such a basket of goodies actually exists. ‘We are against racism and misogyny!’ Sounds good to me, only that’s not true. Some of us are, certainly, but you only need to spend a reasonable amount of time in any pub on a Saturday night, to hear plenty of racist and misogynist talk. And not just pubs. In every walk of life, you can hear this talk: doctors’ waiting rooms, shops, offices, bus stops…

We’re hardly perfect.

If a country is the sum total of its citizens, then you will struggle to identify that country’s ‘values’.

Culture? Culture cuts across borders, it is not constrained by them. We read books and see films and plays that have been written and produced by artists worldwide. Frequently, we have no idea where they actually hail from in the first place.

‘But,’ I hear an angry shout, ‘it is our indigenous culture that makes us great!

Uh-huh? I am often bemused when a famous painting in a British collection is under threat of sale to a foreign buyer and there is a collective wail of ‘Our cultural inheritance is in danger!’ Bemused, because nine times out of ten the painting in question is by an Italian or French or German or artist of some other nationality.

If we only had British paintings in our gallery things would look rather different.

And the Elgin marbles? Ours, dammit! Our inheritance!

The treasures filling our museums from all the countries we colonised and asset-stripped…

Maybe it’s our religious inheritance. Christian, according to a lot of the stuff I hear.

In 2015, 42% of the British population identified themselves as Christian. (British Social Attitudes survey) Those who actually attend church regularly, however, number only 5-6% of the population.

The vast majority of the British population do not go to church, so how can we be a Christian country?

What about our history, then?

Well, good and bad, like most countries. We abolished slavery in the 1800’s – all well and good, but we had profited hugely from it in the years before. The lot of a slave in the British West Indies, for example was horrendously barbaric.

Empire? Pfft.

Votes for women? Eventually, and only after a concerted attempt to trample the movement underfoot, using a fair degree of violence in the process.

Everyone will have their own ideas of what we do well, of course. I am proud of the fact that we give our share of aid to projects designed to eradicate poverty and disease around the world, and disaster relief. I am grateful that despite the failings of the system (and they are many) we live in a country where our representatives can be thrown out and re-elected on a regular basis. We cannot, in theory, be held without trial, and we are not in constant danger of being mown down by gunfire in our streets and schools.

But, before we get too cocky about that, remember how things can change over time.

Vigilance, my friends, vigilance…

Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

In countries such as India, there is frequently an impression that Western visitors and therefore, by extension, all Westerners, own vast wealth and have massive amounts of leisure time at their disposal.

After all, they arrive on holiday, perhaps for a month or more, and they go around staying in places that are far beyond the means of the average Indian, spend the equivalent of several month’s wages on souvenirs, often hop on an aircraft to take a journey that would be one hundredth of the price by rail, flaunting expensive cameras and watches and phones and designer clothes. So who wouldn’t think that?

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This is not helped by the impressions given by many Western films and programs, where work seldom seems to get in the way of whatever action the film is depicting.

This often affects how local people interact with visitors, and their feelings about them.

I suspect it even drives a certain amount of international migration, too.

And so I think it very important to highlight a few facts;

Basically, the differences in exchange rates of different currencies give the impression of great wealth which is not, in fact, true.

A few numbers:

The average annual wage in the UK is currently £28,000, or $34,400. This sounds a lot (even to me!) but that hides a huge variation, of course.

It is quite hard to find figures that agree about the average annual Indian wage, with estimates varying from around $600, up to around $3500, although this may well reflect the massive difference between the rural worker and a worker in, for example, the IT industry. For sake of argument, I’m going to use the figure of $2000, which could still be slightly on the high side, looking at some of the sites I’ve gone to.

This would give the average UK worker a wage 17 times higher than the Indian. Sounds good for us, but the average cost of a house in the UK is now some £300,000 – that’s $369,000, and it is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own house unless they are helped by well-off parents, and they have very well-paid jobs. The average rent, otherwise, is around $12,300 per year. About a third of the average wage.

To find an average cost to rent in India is also difficult (for me!). I scoured a lot of sites, and seemed to come up with a figure of somewhere around $1,200 a year, although there were massive variations, both between cities and within them. If I have got these figures correct, that is around a half of the average wage.

The prices of basic commodities such as foodstuffs or power vary a lot between India and UK, too. Whereas I have bought street food in India for a rupee or two, making a lunch for perhaps 15 or 20 cents, it would cost me at least $2.50 to $3 in UK for the equivalent.

This isn’t to draw up an accurate comparison between the two – it would be quite a study to do that – but to try to make the point that the average person in the UK is better off (materially) than the average person in India, but not by nearly as much as many might think.

India has more of a problem with poverty, but the West has quite a bit, too. And whilst the poor in the West are emphatically not as badly off as their cousins in India, they still endure considerable hardship. Even with the existence of the supposed safety net of Social Security. There is homelessness. There is malnourishment.

Incidentally, and I pose this as a question to my Indian friends, I frequently read articles that focus on aid and development in poor (especially rural) areas of India, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of the population have to survive on around two dollars a day.

In the light of the above, I wonder whether this isn’t a little disingenuous, since that figure may not be as far below the average wage as many in the West believe, and wonder what you think?

I think it matters, because I believe this might distract attention from where work is needed more, such as improving sanitation, work conditions and medical care.

Bodhgaya (1)

I spent a total of 2 months in Bodhgaya, Bihar, but I seemed to end up with surprisingly few photographs of the town and surrounding countryside. Here are a selection of them, though, and I may put a few more up sometime soon. Hence the somewhat tentative ‘part one’ in the title.

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 Bodhgaya is a world heritage site, because the Mahabodhi Temple was built at the site where the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment, some 2500 years ago. The original temple was built by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The current temple dates from the 11th century AD, and was restored in 1882 by the Burmese. Surrounded by the usual frenetic Northern Indian crowds, and visited by a huge number of pilgrims and visitors, the temple and grounds still manage to somehow achieve an unbelievably peaceful ambience.

 

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The Bhodi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. It is a third generation descendant of the tree under which the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment.

 

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Thai temple, Bodhgaya. As well as the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya also has temples built by virtually every country with a sizeable Buddhist population. As befits the place where the Buddha originally achieved enlightenment, it is an active Buddhist centre with many charitable projects set up and running.

 

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Dawn over Sujata Village, Bodhgaya. This was often the view that greeted me when I walked across the dry bed of the River Phalgu from Bodhgaya to the village of Sujata, in the cool of the morning. A rich reward for getting up early!


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Hindu temples on the edge of Sujata Village.

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Fields in Sujata Village. In the vast majority of Indian villages, fields are still worked by hand or with animal labour. here is no exception.

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Farms at the edge of Bodhgaya. Although Bihar is the most corrupt, poverty-ridden state in India, sitting at the bottom of the table in almost any set of statistics that you may care to consult, the land appears lush and fertile, supporting a strong agriculture.

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And whilst we’re on a rural theme…a street corner in Bodhgaya.

 

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Monks heading for morning puja (ceremony) in Sujata.

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Temple door in Bodhgaya.

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Dawn in Bodhgaya. The moslems are heading for the mosque, whilst most of the others are heading for work, for puja at Hindu or Buddhist temples, or to find breakfast.

I was after breakfast.

Poverty and Those Ghastly Scroungers

I have sat on this one for a month or so, so that my emotions do not get the better of me.

But I am still furious.

I am lucky. I have always had a roof over my head.

I read an article in a broadsheet newspaper weekend supplement that self-righteously banged on about having to convert an entire house on a small budget of twenty thousand pounds, and how they had to live oh, such a frugal life, whilst they were doing this.

Not that there was anything wrong with the house before they converted it, but it wasn’t a style that they liked.

And the colour of that wall, isn’t it dreadful? How could anyone be expected to live in a house like that?

Have they ever had to wonder how they were going to buy food for their family because the bank refused to honour their cheques, because they were overdrawn without permission? No, but I bloody well have, and it really makes me furious.

And I am very aware that compared to the problems and dangers facing millions of people in the world today, mine was a comparatively minor problem. No one was shooting at me. I wasn’t forced to live on the streets. My children didn’t drown attempting to reach a country where they wouldn’t starve to death or be shot or bombed.

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I am certain that many people here in the west today simply do not understand what ‘poverty’ means.

It does not mean that you cannot afford an exotic holiday this year.

It does not mean that you cannot afford to upgrade your car this year.

It does not mean that you have to buy the second best large flat-screen TV.

So many people condemn ‘economic migrants’ as if the very term means that they are simply greedy freeloaders.

As if hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk their lives, and those of their families, just to get a little bit more. A few extra treats, or somesuch.

That they must be greedy, scrounging and good for nothing.

Foreign, of course.

It seems to matter little that they are fleeing war, terror, the destruction of their entire lives and livelihoods.

They are forced into overcrowded camps with hardly any facilities, which are then condemned for being squalid.

And newspapers and politicians encourage and disseminate this attitude for their own ends, telling us all that our own standards of living will decline if we let them in. Like the shameful lie that went around the UK a couple of years back that immigrants were being given cars by councils.

I am genuinely ashamed of belonging to this society.

It is not that there have been any new revelations on the migrant crisis, rather there is a paucity of news. Dozens of human beings drowning in a desperate attempt to reach safety no longer merits more than a passing mention.

Do we no longer care, or are we merely saturated with the horror of it?

Or do we just not, really, care what happens to people who live, or should live, far away?

No, it was just this one little article in one broadsheet supplement that made me furious this time. Next time, it will be something else.

Don’t tell me that if all the powerful and influential people of the world got together with genuine goodwill that they could not solve this crisis.

Where are the powerful of industry? There are one or two immensely rich industrial tycoons, such as Bill Gates, who have demonstrated that people like themselves can make a genuine difference to the world, and in a good way. Where are the others? I have always felt that the very rich have become very rich because they are callous, selfish, and do not care about anybody else.

I would be delighted if a few of them could now prove me wrong.