A Review of Baudolino by Umberto Eco

In this, his fourth novel, professional liar Umberto Eco spins the yarn of Baudolino, a fellow artificer hailing from Eco’s hometown of Alessandria and possessing more than a bit of the author’s personality. Like Eco, Baudolino is a master of many languages, has a passion for history and politics, takes pleasure in a good meal, and tempers idealism with a wry sense of humor.

Reviewed by Allen B. Ruch

by Umberto Eco.
Translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Inc., 2001, ISBN 0-15-100690-3; Hardcover

“Lying about the future produces history.”
–Umberto Eco

Near the end of Baudolino, a twelfth-century historian asks advice from a fellow Byzantine, a philosopher named Paphnutius who was blinded as punishment for the failure of his inventions to perform on command. The historian is writing an account of the ongoing sack of Constantinople during the dissipated Fourth Crusade, and is surprised by the inventor’s suggestion to omit certain details from his narrative: “Yes, I know it’s not the truth, but in a great history little truths can be altered so that the greater truth emerges.” Seeing the wisdom in this, the historian nonetheless laments the loss of a beautiful story; but the blind man assures him that one day, sooner or later, a greater liar than them all will restore the tale.

The year is 1204, the historian in question Niketas Choniates, the book The Sack of Constantinople, and the omissions all concern the exploits of a fellow named Baudolino. And of course, a quick flip through its pages will reveal that Master Niketas heeded his friend’s advice — there is no mention of Baudolino; nor are there any references to his quarrelsome companions, the true cause of the death of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, a lucrative campaign to propagate fake holy relics, a convoluted quest for the Holy Grail, or a tale of unfulfilled love on the borders of utopia. (Trust me, I checked the copy I always keep on hand. Feel free to check yours, too.) As the blind man predicted, a greater liar has indeed come along, one so full of falsehood that he’s inscribed predictions of his own arrival into the very pages of the story itself.

In this, his fourth novel, professional liar Umberto Eco spins the yarn of Baudolino, a fellow artificer hailing from Eco’s hometown of Alessandria and possessing more than a bit of the author’s personality. Like Eco, Baudolino is a master of many languages, has a passion for history and politics, takes pleasure in a good meal, and tempers idealism with a wry sense of humor. Even both their origins are touched by a hint of mystery like a sly wink: Baudolino’s father is Gagliaudo Aulari, the legendary Alessandrian trickster who ended a siege by means of a deception involving his cow; Eco’s own grandfather claims to be a foundling, his last name a contraction of ex coelis oblatus, or “offered by the heavens.” (The book itself offers that the Holy Grail might be lapis ex coelis, or a stone fallen from heaven; perhaps a punning authorial watermark?) But most important of all, both Baudolino and Eco take delight in a good story.

It is this love of storytelling that animates the entire novel, Eco’s most light-hearted and comedic work to date. Guided by Paphnutius’ wise implication that history is narrative, Baudolino operates on several levels at once, combining a picaresque adventure story with a fantastical flight of historical invention. At its heart, it is the story of Baudolino, a brash opportunist with leonine hair, a silver tongue, and a heart of gold. But this being an Umberto Eco novel, nothing is that simple, and Baudolino is layered with several degrees of narrative, none of which are particular trustworthy.

To begin with, the story is largely framed as a dialogue between Baudolino and Niketas Choniates. Meeting amidst the burning fires of Constantinople, the two men forge a friendship as Latin crusaders plunge the city into chaos, sacking its priceless treasures and looting its holy reliquaries. There, while hiding from the invaders and organizing their escape, Baudolino confesses himself to be an inveterate liar and proceeds to tell Master Niketas his life’s story — and quite a story it is, taking many days to unfold. Eventually Baudolino’s narrative catches up to their present predicament, after which the Byzantine assists him in solving an old mystery, bringing an unexpected closure to his new friend’s miraculous tale. Unlike Eco’s previous novels, however, Baudolino does not purport to be an unearthed manuscript, nor is it an immediate, first-person account. While the conversations between Baudolino and Master Niketas form the main text of the book, this very dialogue is itself narrated by an omniscient author unafraid to comment on the characters and their actions. The end result is a story within a story within a story, each level supplying additional falsehoods and distortions. (To call this an “unstable” or “unreliable” narrative would be kind!)

That is not to say the story of Baudolino is difficult to follow, only difficult to believe, which is half the point. Born in a chilly swamp and named for “the only saint who never performed a single miracle,” the young Italian sees (or believes he sees, for even Baudolino admits to being hazy on the distinction) occasional visions in the fog: unicorns, saints, German emperors, that sort of thing. From an early age, Baudolino discovers that his visions have the power to influence people, from superstitious peasants to great men searching for something to confirm their beliefs. One day he unknowingly encounters Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, and ingratiates himself to the warlord with a serendipitous lie. Taking leave of Gagliaudo, his cranky father, young Baudolino becomes something of an adopted son and junior consigliere to the Emperor. Time after time his audacious schemes play out in the Emperor’s favor, and soon Baudolino finds himself a trusted member of the imperial court, educated in Paris and studying with scholars such as Rainald von Dassel and Bishop Otto von Freising. Flitting back and forth between Paris and the Emperor’s various hot zones, Baudolino takes part in numerous political and ecclesiastical debates, imperial ceremonies, and military campaigns.

Throughout this often confusing panoply of medieval names, places, and events, Eco uses the character of Baudolino as a shuttle, weaving together diverse strands of history and legend into a unified tapestry — though one that reveals Baudolino’s signature deep in the pattern. Like Zelig, Baudolino is always attendant in the background of important events; though unlike Woody Allen’s character, Baudolino has the chutzpah to claim authorship, and does so with such casual familiarity and deadpan disavowal of his own genius that even Niketas is seduced into believing his tales. According to Baudolino, it is he himself who masterminds the political manipulations and legal subterfuges needed to legitimize Barbarossa’s reign, frees Bishop Otto from the chains of pessimism by accidentally erasing his “first draft” of the Chronica sive Historia de duabus civitatibus, establishes the myth of the Holy Grail as it would later be revealed to Wolfram von Eschenbach, and provides Gagliaudo with the idea of using his cow to save Alessandria. Baudolino even proves to be the true author of the celebrated correspondence between Abélard and Héloîse! (Unsent love letters originally intended for the object of Baudolino’s secret infatuation, they include “her” fictional replies, and were eventually swiped in Paris by some “dissolute canon.”) The book abounds with such playful revelations, and Eco rewards the attentive reader with dozens of historical ironies, amusing connections, and absurd conspiracies. As might be expected, Baudolino is also filled with wordplay and literary in-jokes: words are borrowed from Gulliver’s Travels, Borges’ wondrous Aleph is relocated to a stairway in the Coliseum, and not only is Rabelais’ great library of Saint-Victoire brazenly expropriated, but Baudolino is also at fault for the bogus volumes of Bede catalogued in Pantagruel! Eco even alludes to his own debut novel, The Name of the Rose, which claims to be the manuscript of a fictional fourteenth-century monk named Adso of Melk. Baudolino ends his first attempt at writing by complaining, “and as the man said my thumb akes” — presumably an anachronistic reference to Adso’s concluding, “It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches.”

While these cheerful layers of intertextuality provide the novel its vertical depth, forward momentum is gained via Baudolino’s increasing enchantment with the kingdom of Prester John. A persistent legend of the Middle Ages, the kingdom of Prester John was believed to be a magical realm lost somewhere in the Orient, a land where a Christian King held sway, awaiting unification with his spiritual brothers in the West. The story gained some credibility through the periodic appearances of a letter purportedly from Prester John, addressed to various Western potentates and describing a kingdom overflowing with glittering treasure, sacred relics, and marvelous creatures. Sensing both the cultural need for such a powerful myth as well as its potential political use, Baudolino sees no harm in perpetuating the story, and he soon gathers a circle of like-minded “believers” who further embroider the tale with their own idiosyncratic threads. Naturally, it is Baudolino who writes the first and original version of the infamous letter, which is soon copied, altered, and dispersed by jealous rivals. Freed from imperial service by the mysterious death of Frederick, an aging Baudolino finally decides to put faith in his own powers of creation, and he leads his group of poets and philosophers on a quest to truly find the kingdom of Prester John. Numbering twelve, the travelers pass themselves off as the “twelve magi” of medieval legend, paying for their passage by selling counterfeit holy relics. As they journey into stranger and stranger lands, they pass the time in scientific discussion and theological debate. Like Dorothy’s crew “off to see the Wizard,” each of the travelers has his own personal reason to discover the kingdom of Prester John, a utopia they themselves have imagined into being.

It is here, however, that Baudolino reveals a deep and unfortunate flaw. While this journey sounds like fertile ground for complex characterization and rich literary discussion, Eco spends far too little time developing the individual personalities of his cast. As a result, most of Baudolino’s associates appear faceless and interchangeable, leaving the reader few points of access for emotional and intellectual sympathy. Even their debates too often ring hollow, and while a dazzling array of ideas are presented, few are followed through or explored with any real vigor. One hungers for the depth and intensity Eco brought to the characters and conversations of his other, more fleshed-out works, and even the competing heresies of Pndapetzim seem pale and thin when measured against the profound discussions of Rose and Pendulum. Missing here is the sense of an authorial intellect on fire, ideas fully brought into play and folded into a rich, textual density, characters that offer compelling studies in human experience. As in The Island of the Day Before, throughout much of Baudolino Eco bends his literary talents to describing the fantastic with startling realism, and elevating the mundane through poetic fabulism. While this certainly has its own rewards — the description of the Sambatyon, a river of flowing stone, is just stunning — the reader feels somewhat blocked at the surface of the text, skipping from idea to idea like a stone across water. The happy exception to this is found during scenes with Hypatia, a siren-like beauty who captures Baudolino’s heart and restores his spirit. A devotee of Gnostic thought, Hypatia has many fascinating notions about God, and her passionate beliefs inform the best passages in the book. (It may be telling that the author himself claims to have “fallen in love” with Hypatia.) It is here that Eco approaches the sublime, marrying the language of poetic rapture with the sheer joy of thought:

God is the Unique, and he is so perfect that he does not resemble any of the things that exist or any of the things that do not; you cannot describe him using your human intelligence, as if he were someone who becomes angry if you are bad or worries about you out of goodness, someone who has a mouth, ears, face, wings, or that is spirit, father or son, not even of himself. Of the Unique you cannot say he is or is not, he embraces all but is nothing; you can name him only through dissimilarity, because it is futile to call him Goodness, Beauty, Wisdom, Amiability, Power, Justice, it would be like calling him Bear, Panther, Serpent, Dragon, or Gryphon, because whatever you say of him you will never express him. God is not body, is not figure, is not form; he does not see, does not hear, does not know disorder and perturbation; he is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, thought, word, number, order, size; he is not equality and is not inequality, is not time and is not eternity; he is a will without purpose. Try to understand, Baudolino: God is a lamp without flame, a flame without fire, a fire without heat, a dark light, a silent rumble, a blind flash, a luminous soot, a ray of his own darkness, a circle that expands concentrating on its own center, a solitary simplicity; he is…is…” She paused, seeking an example that would convince them both, she the teacher and he the pupil. “He is a space that is not, in which you and I are the same thing, as we are today in this time that doesn’t flow.

Powerful stuff, and one wishes for more of it. Having said that, Baudolino is still filled with enough invention, wonder, and erudition to fill a dozen lesser novels, and it’s pointless to criticize it for not having the same goal as his earlier works. After three labyrinthine novels of endless conversation and theoretical convolutions, who can blame Eco for having a little fun?

And Baudolino certainly is an enjoyable read. Although there are a few longueurs — the Emperor’s comings and goings are a bit tedious, and even Eco pokes fun at the difficulty of keeping tabs on all the squabbling city states — after the death of Frederick, Eco pulls out the stops, and the narrative unwinds in increasingly more unexpected directions. Additionally, Eco invests his tale with a dry humor and a sharp sense of irony — the world of Baudolino has a lived-in feel, and is often crude, bawdy, or vulgar, inhabited by pragmatic people who know to keep their heads down when the shit flies. Eco has often reflected that his Piedmontese heritage comes with a skeptical, no-nonsense outlook, and this is especially reflected in his Alessandrian characters. Men talk about sex in the rudest of terms, the cruelty of violence is barbed by black humor, and no character is allowed to overindulge in flights of fancy without soon falling flat on his ass. Dialogue is often terse, salted with laconic observations and earthy wit. After elaborating on a plan to lure invaders into a trap, one Alessandrian asks, “And where are you going to find the asshole who falls for it?” Of course, Baudolino knows just the asshole, and he could easily be a character from one of Eco’s previous novels — Baudolino is filled with peasants and low-brow servants getting one up on their betters. Later in the book, an Eastern ruler inquires about the fabulous wonders reputed to be found in the West, from trees that drip wine to cathedrals made of crystal. As Baudolino cagily confirms these exaggerations, his companion mutters, “Who’s been telling these people such whoppers?” The fact that this companion — who has been posing as a Biblical magus and is carrying one of six heads of John the Baptist — has been strategically spreading exactly such whoppers himself is not worthy of comment. Like a Pynchon novel, Baudolino celebrates the profane lives and “honest” cunning of the preterite, and if they can exploit, dupe, or take advantage of the elect, so much the better. These rough edges give Baudolino a feeling of authenticity, and even amidst its most fantastical passages, the reader feels anchored to a believable Middle Ages precisely because it feels so much like our own daily experience.

While Baudolino may lack the soaring prose, intense discussions, and convoluted density of Eco’s previous works, like all good comedy it presents an image of the world that we instinctively recognize as true. Like a Speculum Stultorum, or medieval Mirror for Fools, Baudolino catches humanity with our pants down, hands windmilling frantically to divert attention from our exposed privates as we shuffle offstage for a drink. And yet, burlesque is born from fondness, not contempt; we allow Baudolino to tease humanity because it genuinely loves humanity. As in all Eco’s work, cynicism never sours to nihilism, critique never bites down into mockery: there is a powerful argument for life in Baudolino, an argument for love, joy, persistence, and yes, even the transformative power of dreams. Like the writing of Gabriel García Márquez or Thomas Pynchon, Eco’s fiction balances Romantic self-expression with postmodern self-awareness, emanating from a place where both currents serve to energize each other. Although truth is seen as relative, the dangers of belief are exposed, and meaning is revealed as a construct, the reader is still asked to critically engage with the thriving multiplicity of the world and invest some faith in hopeful stories — Baudolino carries the message that the individual is free to discover meaning and to act with moral courage, whether in love or war.

In the end, of course, Baudolino is just another story, and it can be read in many ways. Surely one reading suggests that Baudolino’s lies make history meaningless; but a deeper reading, perhaps, proposes that through narrative imagination we envision a better future. And if it doesn’t come true, what the hell — a greater liar will always come along.

For more information on Baudolino visit: Baudolino

About the Reviewer: Allen B. Ruch is the Editorial Director of The Modern Word, which maintains the Web’s largest sites on authors such as Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, and Thomas Pynchon. Fascinated with modern literature from the day he first opened Dr. Seuss’ On Beyond Zebra, Allen lives in Brooklyn with a possessed parrot named Loki, and fondly wishes he could have lunch with Herman Melville.