Umberto Eco's new novel Baudolino is a huge, beautifully conceived and executed tale of history, passion, love, imagination and guile. Challenging and illuminating, full of the digression, invention and brilliance Eco always provides, the book is an absolute joy to be savored.
During the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204, Baudolino saves the life of a high court official named Niketas and, while the city is being burned and looted, he proceeds to tell the appreciative and increasingly intrigued gentleman his life story and quite a story it is.
Born in northern Italy to peasant parents, Baudolino very early on exhibited two qualities which would serve him, for better or worse, his entire life: a talent for languages and a penchant for lying. While still a lad, he charmed by wit and guile a military commander he met in the woods near his home. The commander, who turned out to be none other than Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in Italy on one of the many expeditions that would occupy him for years to come adopted Baudolino, and after a few years in court sent him to be educated in Paris.
There, Baudolino made a number of equally adventurous, imaginative and intellectually curious friends, and together they laid the foundation for an epic quest that is part myth, part hallucination, part reverie and a small dose of fact. This quest, which consumed the rest of their lives, was the pursuit of the kingdom of Prester John, the legendary priest-king of the east, said to rule over a wild and wonderful land of bizarre creatures, eunuchs and unicorns. Fueled in no small part by Baudolino's fecund imagination and willingness to believe his own fabrications, the group eventually set out on the long and extravagant journey to find Prester John.
Moving between passages of slapstick hilarity and poignant beauty, Eco uses the venerable quest motif to unfold a narrative of great depth and feeling in which no less than the core of western theology is examined and elaborated with dazzling intelligence. Baudolino's journey of the spirit takes him through his own middle age and beyond, and in the process we are treated to an insider's view of the historical era of the Middle Ages, with all its inventions, brutality, hope, failure and promise. Christian relics, both real and counterfeit, play an important role in the story, along with an authentic one still debated today. Eco's craftily developed introduction of this item is a delight.
The narrative comes full circle as we learn why Baudolino is in Constantinople to tell his tale. Another brilliant device takes the story one step further as Baudolino, in his 60s, makes yet another effort to redeem a life of near total fabrication. Whether or not he succeeds, we know by then, is of little importance, for as Baudolino says many times in many ways, believing in something makes it real. Sam Harrison, a writer in Ormond Beach, Florida, is currently working on his third novel.