by Umberto Eco
Harcourt, 2002 , ISBN 0-15-100690-3
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Is this a fantasy? It's hard to say with any certainty. Undoubtedly we see many fantastic and magical things as Baudolino recounts his journeys, but Baudolino's a liar.
We meet Baudolino in 1204, as Constantinople is being sacked and burned by the Fourth Crusade. He rescues a high-ranking court official and historian, Niketas Choniates--a real person who did survive the sack of the city and subsequently wrote a history of Byzantium including the story of the sack. He then asks Niketas to listen to his own story, so that he can work out the meaning of it--if any.
Calling this an unreliable narrative is a gross understatement. Baudolino himself says that he habitually confuses what he wants to see with what he does see, and has often told colorful tales rather than the boring truth. An additional layer of unreliability is added by the fact that he's telling this tale entirely from memory, the journal he had kept for years having been lost in the course of his journeys. So this is a tale told from unreliable memory, most of it years after the fact, of an habitual liar.
As a young boy in twelfth-century Italy, Baudolino sets out on the road to fortune and adventure by telling a passing foreign knight that St. Baudolino has appeared to him and told him that Frederick Barbarossa would conquer Terdona (with which he was then at war.) Since the passing knight is Frederick Barbarossa, this prediction naturally goes down very well. In short order, Baudolino has thoroughly charme d the emperor, and is adopted as his son. He is raised in Frederick's court, and eventually, having no taste for war, is sent to Paris to study and returns to be a ministerial of the imperial court. There are elements of secret history to the story, as Baudolino becomes responsible for the founding of the city of Alessandria and the canonization of Charlemagne, amongst other things. In alternating sections, we get the story of Baudolino's rescue of Niketas and his family and their escape from Constantinople, and Baudolino's lifetime of colorful adventures, including his lifelong fascination with the fabled kingdom of Prester John. After Frederick's death, this fascination leads to Baudolino and a group of good friends and more dubious allies setting out for the distant east, following one expedition member's memories of a map claiming to show the way. In the course of their journey, they meet most of the creatures out of the more fantastic mediaeval bestiaries, including unicorns, but also skiapods ponces, and blemmyae, and encounter other wonders.
One of those "other wonders" is a raging river of stone, cutting off the route to Prester John's kingdom. Baudolino's Jewish companion, Rabbi Solomon, had told them of this wonder and its features that make it an unc rossable obstacle: the river flows with a powerful current for six days, and stops completely on the Sabbath. Jews, of course, cannot cross it on the Sabbath. Gentiles could, but when the stones stop, an impassable barrier of flames springs up on both riverbanks. They reach river, look in vain for a way to cross it at or above its source, and eventually give up, travelling downriver again to wait for its Sabbath stoppage. When this happens on schedule, they wait for the flames--and nothing happens:
"So you see you mustn't always believe what they tell you," Baudolino concluded. "We live in a world where people invent the most incredible stories. Solomon, this is a tale you Jews put into circulation to prevent Christians from coming to these parts."
Well, Baudolino--and Eco--certainly ought to know, at least about people inventing incredible stories.
This is a beautifully written book, a delight to read, and there's no need to wonder, as with Isabel Allende's City of the Beasts, whether Eco was well served by his translator.