‘Baudolino’ by Umberto Eco (Italian Lit Month)

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.

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12 Comments

Filed under Eco, Umberto, Fiction

12 responses to “‘Baudolino’ by Umberto Eco (Italian Lit Month)

  1. I read this book a number of years ago, and I’m not sure if I would have the patience for it now, but it has served me well in subsequent literary encounters. One does get a sense of the degree to which fantastic images of the east dominated popular mythology of the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      When I was reading it I kept thinking ‘I would have enjoyed this much more if I’d read it 15 or more years ago’. I have a bit of an interest in Byzantium and the Crusades so that was what drew me in.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read and enjoyed those other two Ecos but I think if I were to read a book like this where an erudite author gets playful with the facts I would rather it was in an area where I got at least some of the jokes. I also find in passing that many books are difficult to discuss without discussing the ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I think with Eco’s books knowing about the subject will probably enhance one’s experience but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. Anyway, these days we can at least check things reasonably easily. I just went with the flow with this one though I did check a few things out of curiosity. I’d vaguely heard of Prester John, for example, but didn’t know anything about the myth.

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  3. It’s a while since I read Eco, and though I enjoyed what I read I do remember feeling that he did need a little editing… Having said that, I abandoned The Prague Cemetery after a few pages, so maybe this wouldn’t be a good one for me either…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Oh, The Prague Cemetery actually looks quite good. What didn’t you like about it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The main character was just so hateful in the first few pages that I couldn’t handle it. It might have improved but I didn’t feel like persevering – there seemed to be no redeeming factors at all. I thought it looked quite good too from the descriptions…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        Oh, I’ll probably try it anyway as hateful characters wouldn’t necessarily put me off reading a book. But we’ll see. I have a copy of The Island of the Day Before but Prague Cemetery has more appeal.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m one of those who lost interest when it took a sharp turn into the mythical (which isn’t because I dislike the mythical, far from it, it just felt like anything could happen and when that’s true I tend to feel it doesn’t matter what does).

    For me a definite curate’s egg of a book. I loved the first half; I got bored in the second half. It did feel to me like it could have used a bit more editing, but editing Eco can’t have been an easy ask.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I got the feeling that Eco was aiming for a 500 page book no matter what – all of his books seem to be about the same length.

      I think I started to tire of it a bit at the beginning because I was trying to read it too fast; I was off work and I felt I could blast my way through it – I couldn’t. I enjoyed it more when I slowed down.

      I know what you mean when you say you lost interest as anything could happen but he was constrained in part by the existing mythology and once Baudolino returned to Constantinople he was back in the real world. I’m still not sure just how much I liked the book but I’m glad now that I didn’t abandon it.

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  5. I always want to like Eco, and I so often end up being terribly confused. Foucoult’s Pendulum, for example, lost me halfway through. The only one I’ve really enjoyed is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I think part of the reason is because it reminded me in many places of my own childhood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I really enjoyed ‘Name of the Rose’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ when I read. I thought I’d like Baudolino more than I did initially but grew to like it more. I don’t worry too much about understanding every reference. Sometimes I look stuff up but other times I just let it slide. I shall undoubtedly read more by him.

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