Now, 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.
So I’ve written on the British EDM boom of the early-mid ’90s on several occasions. This may count, although if it does, it’s pretty late in the movement. Given the content of this blog, I’m no stranger to people carving out artistic niches in the music industry to varying levels of commercial success, but Dead Cities is kind of a weird recording, even in the context of previous FSOL albums – half ambient with excursions into frantic breakbeats and whatever “We Have Explosive” is (besides very much of its time; alternatively, besides a grammatically incorrect phrase).
If you got the impression that this record is fairly varied in terms of sound and approach, you guessed right; Dead Cities is a veritable carnivalscape. You can distinguish to a degree between the darker first half and arguably more experimental second half, but even within each side, mood swings and asides are the norm. If there’s one thing that ties the varied material on Dead Cities together, it’s definitely the rhythm section, although ironically it does so by constantly changing and tripping over itself and generally not being composed of basic four-on-the-floor beats. The percussion ends up very prominent in the songs, which makes for an interesting counterpart to some of FSOL’s previous work (Lifeforms, which wasn’t particularly beat and percussion oriented). I can’t say whether or not this would’ve continued on previous releases since my ability to decipher their career trajectory falls off after this.
What I’ve seen of discussion on this album tends to call it “post-apocalyptic”, generally referencing the first few tracks. As a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures), Dead Cities doesn’t exactly respond to this classification, but I can hear what people might be referring to. I consulted my own opinions on this – they told me the sheer quantity of lighter content and mood on here probably places this centuries after any cataclysmic events and at best puts the listener they belong to in the mindset of decaying ruins and archaeology. Whether or not this matches the authors’ intent is beyond me. I could do some research – for instance, I could look at the artbook that came with some editions of the album, but I don’t think that would negate any previous mental imagery.
Anyways, music possibly written to complement artistic installations is one thing, but in the absence of such installations, it has to be judged on its own. Dead Cities has taken much time to analyze and dissect on a conceptual level at least, and I’m of the opinion that music has to have some merit if allowed such contemplation. That’s the most you’ll get out of me, suckers! Now if only the internet had enough of a physical metaphor that I could jump out of a window and magically fly away…
Highlights: “We Have Explosive”, “Quagmire” (giggity), “Glass”