‘Baudolino’ by Umberto Eco

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Saturday, January 8, 2011 - Save & Share - 3 Comments

Baudolino first came into my possession when I was helping a friend sort through some of his books at university when he moved from a large room into a much smaller one.  When I unearthed this book, he expressed surprise that I hadn’t already read it and then insisted that I rehome it as naturally, being a medievalist, I would love it.  Never one to turn down a free book, I took it off his hands and then, being not only a medievalist but a medievalist in the middle of writing her MA dissertation, it promptly became buried under a stack of less medieval brain candy for essential light relief.  I had completely forgotten about it until a colleague lent me the same book, also insisting that I would love it.  As this chap delights in giving people books to read, all of which so far have been universally loathed by the reluctant recipients, this was hardly an encouragement.  Nonetheless, this meant that I now had two copies of the book staring accusingly at me from my shelves and the cumulative guilt finally proved too much, so I gave in and read the book.

Baudolino is a difficult book to summarise, because the more you read, the more you realise that the plot is merely incidental and the book is really about something else entirely.  In fact, if you were to read this book for the plot you would be very confused very quickly.  The story is a first person account by the eponymous Baudolino of his life, as told to Niketas whom he rescues from the sack of Constantinople.  It chronicles his adventures from 1155 when he was adopted in all but name by Emperor Frederick I up to the fourth Crusade which is the present day of the novel.  In between he falls in love, studies in Paris, negotiates peace agreements, saves cities, and searches for the legendary kingdom of Prester John.  However, what the book is really about (I think; it’s a bit difficult to tell with Eco) is what is true and what is not and how easily one can become the other.

Baudolino himself is established as an unreliable narrator from the very beginning of the novel.  The book begins with him quite literally erasing history and writing his own story over the top of it when he scrapes clean some parchment containing historical records for his own personal use.  He goes on to fabricate love letters which he considers more true than if they had really been sent to him by the object of his affection (who is of course, like Dante’s lady love, called Beatrice).  He creates religious relics from household junk.  He invents a letter from Prester John to Frederick which sends Baudolino and his friends off on an impossible journey to find the kingdom that they themselves have created, bearing a cup which they style as the grail.  These stories not only take in others, but they even fool their creators as Baudolino and his friends seem to come to believe in their own fictions, so the reader stands no chance of working out what is true and what is not.  Why should his first person narrative to Niketas be any more factual than any of this?  And does it matter if it is true or a lie?  Eco seems to be asking whether there is a difference at all, and with the amount of blurring that goes on in this book it is impossible to say.

By far my favourite part of this book was Baudolino’s own manuscript which begins the novel, written in a strange, hybrid language which is a mixture of Latin and how he thinks his native tongue ought to sound if it were to be written (and kudos to William Weaver for finding a way to translate this so that it works in English).  This is so very medieval in spirit, right down to his having scraped the parchment clean of another text and written his own story over the top of it (although parts of the original manuscript still show through at points), that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.  This was the first in a long series of in jokes for medievalists which I found enormously entertaining but I’m not sure would have been appreciated as much by someone without this background; even with my education in this area, at times I felt as though I needed to read armed with an encyclopedia of the medieval world to pick up on everything and I’m sure I missed a great deal.  Eco may be writing fiction, but this book is very scholarly, employing and satirising a whole host of medieval tropes and conventions, from Provencal troubadour verse to debate on religious heresies, from courtly love to fantastic travelogues and from philosophy to the inexplicable lists, ubiquitous in medieval literature.  Baudolino is a gold mine of satire on the middle ages, but it is hard work to read.

Baudolino by Umberto Eco.  Translated by William Weaver.  Published by Vintage, 2003, pp. 522.  Originally published in 2000.

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3 Responses to “‘Baudolino’ by Umberto Eco”

Comment from Annie
Time January 8, 2011 at 9:11 am

I know this is sitting on my shelves somewhere, possible out in the garage where the overflow lives. However, the only person I know who has read this, or rather tried to read it, gave up in despair, and she is not a faint-hearted reader, so I’ve never actually opened it. I think I’ll wait and see how you get on before trying. I’m early modern rather than medieval so it might be out of my field of comfort.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 8, 2011 at 9:53 am

It was definitely hard work, not least because at times it felt as though Eco was too busy being clever to worry about being interesting or coherent, and I do like a novel to have a good plot, however clever it may be. Nonetheless, if you have the time and energy to devote to it (all the children’s literature I’ve been reviewing recently was read at the same time as the Eco so that I only read it when I was feeling particularly awake and intelligent) it is a very interesting book.

Comment from Eva
Time January 8, 2011 at 10:41 am

I’ve read and loved three of Eco’s novels, but I’m worried that without any background in medieval studies this one might go over my head. I was already entertaining ideas of reading more medieval authors this year; perhaps I’ll give Baudolino a try after that!

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