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Volume 15, Issue 2: Ex Libris

Some Books

Woelke Leithart

Umberto Eco
2002, Harcourt, Inc. New York

Umberto Eco is probably best known for The Name of the Rose and justifiably so; that novel is an amazing accomplishment. Eco's latest novel, Baudolino, is set in a similar time period, and some readers might be tempted to think that this work might have the same scope and resonance. It doesn't, but this isn't a bad thing. In Baudolino, he seems to be more focused on having fun and telling a great tale.

The book is set in the Middle Ages before, during, and after the Third Crusade. It is named after the main character whose adventures are chronicled throughout the novel. He is a self-proclaimed liar who throughout the novel succeeds in a variety of deceits, including selling several heads of John the Baptist as relics and attempting to end the siege of a city. In a series of flashbacks that Baudolino explains to a Byzantine noble, we are treated to the story of his life. His rise from peasant to adopted son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick via the life of a student in Paris takes up the first part of the novel.
Baudolino splits rather obviously into two separate parts, the first being Baudolino's experience with Frederick, both in court and on the battlefield. The second half of the novel is by far the more playful. After an aborted crusade to free Jerusalem, Baudolino and his college chums leave civilization to journey to the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who has fascinated them since their days in Paris. Along the way, in order that the people along the way might help them, they assume the mantle of the Returning Magi. It's at this point that the novel takes a major turn from the historical to the fantastic, and this is an excellent change. As interesting as the siege of Alessandria was, their crossing of the river of rocks that ceases its flow only on the Jewish Sabbath is far more entertaining, especially since there is a rabbi in their company who cannot cross a river on the Sabbath. The novel carries on to the inevitable visit to Prester John, and of course it is different from what the pilgrims thought. But to tell more would be to spoil the fun.
Far be it from me to criticize Eco's technique, but I must admit that I found the narrative manner distracting. The story is constantly switching from Baudolino telling the story directly in first person to a third person account. Thus, literally every page or two, I had to readjust my head to who the narrator was. In addition, the third person sections felt as if they should be in first person—changing every he to I would have affected the text very little. In some books I've come across, I've had to constantly remind myself that it was not written in first person, simply because it felt so much that way. This was one of those books.
I should also mention that Baudolino is fully in the tradition of the Middle Ages in vulgarity. There is a fair amount of unsavory language sprinkled throughout, and a few brief sex scenes. This is said more of a caution than anything else—such things are not so overwhelming as to be unskippable.
Eco's trademark style is firmly present as the characters debate all sorts of philosophical and theological issues. They debate the Sabbath, and they debate the floor plan of Ezekiel's temple. The controversies between the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope, and the Basileus at Constantinople are related at length as the hero tries to counsel his lord on how to react to the political situation in Europe. In a climactic battle scene toward the end of the book, the various factions who had temporarily united under a common cause recall that the others are all heretics and thus fall upon each other. In fact, as Baudolino relates, all are heretics of the Nestorian variety.
As can no doubt be guessed, the theme of truth and falsity is strewn throughout the novel in large chunks. Eco's main half-narrator, after all, is a liar. How much of what he says are we supposed to take at face value, even within the constraints of the story? In addition, nearly every major event in the book proceeds on because someone lies. Early on in his career, Baudolino participates in the falsification of the bodies of the Three Magi. Late in the book, we meet a tribe of eunuchs who run their land through a veiled deception. Even at the last line of the novel, Eco bows to the reader and tells us that he is a greater liar than Baudolino.
So should we take the novel seriously? For the most part, no. Eco seems to be having fun more than anything else. The witty banter of the characters and the absurd events that occur to them are examples of this. Is it the best thing Eco has ever written? No. But it's still fun to watch a master writer at work.

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