Home > Books > Umberto Eco – Baudolino (2000)

Umberto Eco – Baudolino (2000)

baudolino_smallNow, I generally try to avoid lying to my readers here at Invisible Blog, but the titular character of Umberto Eco’s 2000 novel is under no such obligation. When I first came across the title, I thought I was going to get something at least broadly similar to E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs, which is sort of a benchmark for unreliable narration in fiction. Baudolino the character is more of an intentional liar than the confused Brother Medardus from Hoffman’s book, though, which makes for a significantly different experience. Also differentiating this book is Umberto Eco’s hardcore philosophical background, which bleeds through on more than one occasion and turns Baudolino into a debate on the very nature of truth and reality.

When it’s not waxing philosophical, Baudolino takes the form of historical fiction. The longer (and better) half of this book follows the eponymous (Piedmontese) Italian, as he exploits his ability to learn languages and lie without remorse to have all sorts of adventures throughout Europe. Baudolino immediately gets himself tangled up in the ambitions of the historically real Frederick I Hohenstaufen. Frederick spends much of his life trying to impose the might of the Holy Roman Empire on Baudolino’s native Italy, but Baudolino increasingly attempts to steer him towards a far greater land – the mythical kingdom of Prester John. In the process, he makes the acquaintance of Parisian university students, has some wacky misunderstandings due to the sordid state of medieval geography, and eventually ends up turning a failed crusade into a pilgrimage to the lands of Prester John.

As you might know from reading Invisible Blog and my other works, I am a complete history nerd, and I found that Baudolino’s interactions with medieval Europe from Paris to Byzantium made for great reading. He gets to participate in the formative era of the great Italian city-states, tries to seduce Frederick’s wife, tries to write his own vernacular language in an age of Latin supremacy, and various other adventures. However, Baudolino’s rather more ‘fantastic’ adventures once his entourage passes out of modern-day Turkey (or the Caucasus or northern Iran, I’m admittedly a bit unclear on this) jump more sharks than Arthur Fonzarelli on water skis. I’ve been known to dip into fantasy fiction occasionally, but the bizarre and incoherent nature of the lands Baudolino visits on his search for the kingdom of Prester John did little to keep my interest, bearing more resemblance to a senseless theological debate than coherent worldbuilding. This might be a veiled look at how Umberto Eco perceives reality; throughout the book, Baudolino’s entourage discusses in great depth the legends they’re dealing with and the possibility that there might be any truth to them at all. They don’t make much headway in their debates, especially since they spend much of them dosed up on a potent psychoactive drug (referred to only as “green honey” in the book). It certainly alters the tone of the book, even if you’re aware of Baudolino’s unreliability as a narrator.

A common trend with my book reviews, especially for books that are divided in any sort of sections, formal or informal, is that I end up covering a lot of books where I significantly favor one part over another. Baudolino is definitely like that, and my biases as a reader are hard to overcome. Still, I recommend the first half of this book; you might be able to trudge through the second half once you’ve invested in enough in the first.

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