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Baudolino by Umberto Eco
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M_50x66
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Aug 09, 12

Read in August, 2012

In "The Name of the Rose", Umberto Eco managed the extraordinary feet of balancing his philosophical preoccupations against the needs of story-telling. "Baudolino" is even more ambitious--taking on the nature of story-telling itself--but achieves less. The forum for Eco's musings is an invented character, Baudolino, who travels Zelig-like between the real events around the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th: a couple of Crusades, the fall of Constantinople, the wars of Frederick Barbarossa, the struggle between Italian cities and that confederation that Voltaire famously called neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Baudolino spins his tale, mostly in third person, to the Byzantine chronicler Niketas Choniates, inventing personages and borrowing them (most notably, Barbarossa and Choniates) along the way. The first part centers around Baudolino's accumulation of friends, his adoption by and relationship with Barbarossa, up to the death of the non-Holy nor Roman Emperor. The second part is a tale of Baudolino's friends and companions (an Abdul who is not an Arab, a probably fictitious tale-teller borrowed from Eschenbach's Parzival, a rabbi, a few historical figures, and some of the novel's seemingly endless supply of Genoese) as they travel across lands people by beings out of science fiction, in pursuit of two of the Middle Ages' greatest fixations: the Holy Grail and the kingdom of Prester John, the mythological Christian ruler. Tales are spun within tales and it becomes evident early on that the main game is using the history of the Middle Ages and its sloppy approach to verification to make some comments about the creation of stories: there's an invented map, populated by invented creatures, a proliferation of false holy relics, a classic murder plot (how is a man killed in a locked room?). "Baudolino" is a textbook case of the sum amounting to less than the parts, or perhaps too much of a middling thing. Perhaps I would feel differently if I had not just read Choniates' chronicle, and developed a great affection for that most ironic and skeptical of witnesses, mourning the destruction of the Constantinople he loved at the hands of people come to liberate the Holy Land. There are some well-borrowed set pieces from Choniates: the truly agonizing death of the Emperor Andronikos and the sack of Constantinople. But, at the end, Baudolino is no William of Baskerville, the endless spinning of tales within tales lacks the tension of the murder in a monastery, and the discussion of medieval inventions is not as compelling as the fine points of theology and the lost book on comedy by Aristotle in Eco's earlier novel.
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