I’m not entirely sure now why I chose to read Baudolino: It’s true that I’d read and loved Eco’s more famous works, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum and I was looking for something else to read from my TBR pile, possibly an Italian one so I could include it in Stu’s Italian Lit Month, but then I wasn’t in the mood for anything remotely fantastic, I was more in the mood for straightforward modern realism. So, I was only partially prepared for Eco’s story of Baudolino, an adopted son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and his tales of intrigue, deception and journeys to mythological places. Although I nearly abandoned the book at least twice I felt that it was an enjoyable read and the craziness of it won me over in the end. I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I had been more in the mood for it. But Eco, although loquacious, is still an entertaining writer and one who is remarkably easy to read even if we get lost in some of the twists and turns of the plot. Part of the attraction of Eco’s works is that he mixes real historical people and events with his own fictional accounts filling in missing details with whatever he feels like.
Baudolino tells Niketas Choniates, a Byzantine scholar, the story of his life and how he has ended up in Constantinople whilst it’s being ransacked by Western troops during the Fourth Crusade. Baudolino, the son of a peasant, has a natural skill for languages, being able to work out a language just from hearing people speak together. A chance meeting with Frederick I results in him being sold to and adopted by the emperor. Before long Frederick takes a new wife, Beatrice of Burgundy, whom Baudolino finds so beautiful that he can barely speak in her presence. Meanwhile Baudolino gets used to court life and is then sent to study in Paris. Many of the characters he meets in Paris play a significant part in the rest of the novel, such as The Poet, a man who aspires to be a poet even though he hasn’t ever written a poem in his life, or Abdul, a red-headed Moor who has access to his uncle’s prodigious library.
Frederick is in constant conflict with different Italian cities and values Baudolino’s honest advice even if he doesn’t always follow it. When Frederick besieges Baudolino’s old birthplace, Alessandria, now a fledgling city, he is sent to try to broker an agreement but instead gets mixed up in all sorts of shenaningans. During the ransacking of Milan Baudolino comes across the purported bodies of the Magi and manages to smuggle them out. He is then involved in trying to concoct a story that can be used to validate the Magi. Baudolino suggests that they could have come from a mythical land to the east ruled by Prester John.
“Baudolino,” he [Rainald, Frederick’s chancellor] said at once, “I’ll deal with the Magi now; you must think about Prester John. From what you tell me, for the moment we have only rumours, and that’s not enough. We need a document that will attest to his existence, that says who he is, where he is, how he lives.”
“And where will I find that?”
“If you can’t find it, make it. The emperor has allowed you to study, and this is the moment to put your talents to use.”
And this is what Baudolino does, eventually; he writes a letter, purportedly from Prester John, offering the Holy Grail (or Grasal) to Frederick. But circumstances change and the letter is not used, not until he is tricked by a monk, called Zosimos, to show it to him and he somehow makes a copy of it whilst Baudolino is in a drunken stupor.
If you are planning to read Baudolino then it may be best to stop reading at this point
And then things get even more crazy. During the Third Crusade Baudolino bumps into Zosimos in Constantinople, Zosimos claims to have a map showing the way to Prester John and Baudolino fabricates the Grasal from an old wooden bowl—events have changed as they are now going to take the Grasal to Prester John as a gift. Frederick dies whilst in a locked room during a visit in a castle. It looks like it could have been murder and then it’s discovered that both Zosimos and the Grasal have disappeared. They assume he’s heading towards the lands of Prester John and so they aim for the same destination, even though they haven’t a clue where they are going. They venture on further east and end up in Pndapetzim, a land populated with many mythological creatures such as skiapods, blemmyae, ponces, pygmies, giants, panotians, nubians, satyrs and hypatias. At Pndapetzim the road to Prester John is still about a year’s march away and is guarded by a group of eunuchs.
As the novel became more fantastical I almost grew to like it more, possibly because I’d realised that it was going to get stranger as it progressed and I thought I’d just go with the flow. A lot of the reviews that I read suggests that many readers disliked this change of direction of the novel into the mythical. Eco certainly seems to enjoy pulling the reader one way and then another. My favourite part of this novel was during this period where Baudolino and his comrades were training all these strange creatures how to fight in a war, something they hadn’t had to do until then but had to now that there was an imminent threat from an invasion of White Huns. After all their effort their attempt at warfare is a complete shambles and they are overrun by the Huns. Baudolino flees and eventually gets back to Constantinople….on a roc, a large mythical bird of prey.
So, my experience of Baudolino was mixed: at times I found it a bit annoying, a bit too long, but then I enjoyed the playfulness of it and would probably have enjoyed it more if I had been in the right mood for it when I started it. I liked the mix of fact and fiction and often found myself checking things on Wikipedia or elsewhere and was surprised how much was either true or had existed as stories or mythologies. Eco did a great job of weaving them all into an incredible story and I found myself laughing quite often at the absurdity of the tale.
I read this as part of Stu’s Italian Literature Month.