Baudolino (2000): Umberto Eco


This was a reread, but it might as well have been a first encounter: I’d read Baudolino back in spring 2004 and remembered virtually nothing of the plot, beyond my delight that Niketas Choniates was one of the main characters. Yes, I probably do need to explain that. By sheer chance, I’d begun to read this novel after a term spent studying medieval European history, during which one of my essays had required me to spend a week getting my head around the mechanics of the Byzantine court. I didn’t really manage it, but it sparked off my fascination with Byzantium and, even better, it introduced me to Niketas. His Annals include what has become one of my favourite historian quotes: ‘There can be no one so mad as to believe there is anything more pleasurable than history.’ Bravo that man.

Baudolino opens in 1204, as the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade ransack the city of Constantinople. Faced with a pair of marauding crusaders, the imperial chancellor Niketas Choniates is providentially saved by the arrival of Baudolino, a middle-aged knight. Entrusting Niketas to the care of his Genoese friends, Baudolino decides to distract the chancellor – while they wait for the chaos to die down – with the dramatic, exotic and sometimes frankly unbelievable story of his life. Born of peasant stock in Lombardy, near the soon-to-be-founded city of Alessandria, Baudolino is notorious for his vivid imagination, which conjures up unicorns and saints in the local fogs and forests. With his native land torn by the ongoing squabbles of the Italian towns and periodically invaded by the Holy Roman Empire, he one day stumbles across a red-bearded German nobleman who turns out to be the emperor Frederick II. Intrigued by Baudolino’s visionary abilities, Frederick takes the boy into his service as a kind of adopted son. Baudolino’s gift, of course, is not visionary: in fact he’s simply a very convincing liar, but he is a liar who wishes to do good and his abilities come to be cherished by the Imperial court. His lies are those which the people around him desperately want to hear, while his stories provide his beloved Frederick with justifications for his power. As Baudolino’s teacher Bishop Otto notes:

I am not asking you to bear witness to what you believe false, which would be a sin,
but to testify falsely to what you believe true – which is a virtuous act because it
compensates for the lack of proof of something that certainly exists or happened. 

Studying at Frederick’s court and, later, at the university in Paris, Baudolino comes to hear about the kingdom of Prester John, who blends the authority of priest and king and who can serve as a precedent for Frederick in the thorny problem of how power should be balanced between Pope and Emperor. At first, Baudolino and his equally imaginative friends simply play student tricks, writing letters purporting to be from Prester John and fantasising about the kind of world in which such a ruler could exist, but as their creation becomes increasingly elaborate, it takes on a power and reality all of its own. Eventually, as a grown man, Baudolino decides to take the leap of faith that will carry him east in search of Prester John and the fantastical lands he has imagined.

The wonderful thing about reading something by Eco is that you’re never quite sure what kind of book it is. Like everything else I’ve read by him, Baudolino bristles with mythology, history, theology and philosophy and segues seamlessly from one genre to another. The first half is a fun but fairly straightforward bildungsroman, which follows our hero from boyhood to middle age in the heart of the medieval world and, in doing so, careens irreverently through a good deal of history. Baudolino receives considerable credit for, among other things, the salvation of Alessandria in 1174, the creation of the cult of the Three Magi at Cologne and the discovery of the Holy Grail (or Grasal). Halfway through the story, however, as Baudolino and his brave companions head east into uncharted territory, we enter a more fantastical world in which religious folklore blends with the beasts of the medieval bestiary and the tall tales of travellers.

Here there are rivers which run with rocks rather than water, which only cease their motion on the Sabbath; there are manticores and chimerae; there are skiapods and satyrs, cynocephali and giant rocs. This is a world constructed not on the principle that people believe things because they are true, but that things become true because people believe them. And, in Baudolino’s world, things which need to be true (because people believe them) but which do not yet exist can be invented – and their invention is not a lie, but merely the expression of a truth that has not yet found tangible physical form. The maxim that ‘Faith makes things become true‘ can be extended to the Christian belief in the power of relics: it is not the intrinsic truth of the relic that matters so much as the truth of the religious emotion that it inspires in the person who believes in it. Relics of questionable origin can be justified, as Baudolino explains with reference to the Three Magi. The truth of the context, or the faith, or the essential truth, gives value to the relic or the story or the lie:

A relic is valid if it finds its proper place in a true story… A door is not a door
if it does not have a building around it; otherwise it would only be a hole –
no, what am I saying? – not even a hole, because a void without something
surrounding it is not a void

Some of it does make my head hurt slightly. Eco is one of the most erudite writers around at the moment and he can be daunting. Some of the philosophical or theological passages in this book are a bit dense, and I may have skim-read a couple of the more involved arguments about the nature of God (that’s probably why I could never get my head around Byzantine history). Nevertheless, I think that in general Baudolino is the most sprightly, accessible and diverting of his novels. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Name of the Rose, you should definitely give this a go. At heart, it’s a book about stories: how they are told, why they are told and what they mean. More than that, perhaps, it’s a book about the sheer joy of telling and sharing such stories, and transmitting visions of other realms or realities. In all his novels,  in fact, Eco keeps coming back to the transformative importance of books and documents. Many of his characters are bookish; his plots turn upon the (non)existence of treatises and testaments; and in Baudolino the framework for the entire text is an act of storytelling. I always enjoy reading an author who’s evidently a bibliophile and I wanted to round off with a rather wonderful final quote:

The world must be full of wondrous things and to know them all –
since a
lifetime will not be enough for you to travel through the whole world –
you can only read all the books

I’m working on it.

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3 thoughts on “Baudolino (2000): Umberto Eco

  1. Isi says:

    Oh I have The name of the rose in my shelves and I still haven't read it. When I watch a film that is based on a book, then I get lazy to read the book.
    But I know it's very good and it's worth reading.

    About this one, Baudolino, sounds great because I also like knowing about historical traditions. In Spain, The Three Magi are the ones who bring presents in Christmas time to children (and adults), not Santa. Well, now is also Santa, but The Three Magi are more important for us. They're coming the night between the 5th and 6th of January and you have to leave in your living roon three glasses of champagne and a big pot of water for their camels 🙂

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks for your comment Isi! Yes, Baudolino is great fun in that respect, if you like the myths and legends and religious traditions of the medieval period.

    I knew about the importance of Epiphany in Spain, but I didn't know about the traditions. Three glasses of champagne – lucky Magi! In our house Santa used to get a mince pie, a glass of sherry and a carrot for Rudolph – I'm sure he would have preferred the champagne. 🙂

  3. Isi says:

    A mince pie?
    A carrot for Rudolph?
    So neither of them should be starving at the end of the night!
    I suppose the Three Magi end the night a little bit drunk, but Santa is much more healthy, I see 🙂

    So yes, they are more important for us (I don't know why). My mother says that, when she was a child, se never heard about Santa (and she is 55): it was the era of Franco's dictatorship and nothing from abroad came into Spain.

    Every children is supposed to have one favourite Magi and that Magi is responsible for bringing them the presents. I Spain the translation is different and we call them “The Magi Kings” or “Magician Kings” (something like this) and children say “my favourite King is…”.

    It's curious to know we are so close and we have different traditions.

    But now children get presents in December from Santa and also in January from The Three Magi 😀

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