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Book Review: Baudolino

By: Preston Waddoups

Published in 2000 and translated into English in 2001, Umberto Eco’s Baudolino is an odd yet engaging mix of genres. While the best candidates for classifying the novel at large are probably “historical fiction” or “postmodern fiction,” different episodes in Baudolino conspicuously utilize tropes from a variety of genres, such as mystery, fantasy, the picaresque, the campus novel, legends of saints, and historical fiction itself. In this chimera of a narrative, the titular character tells his life story to a Byzantine official during the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople. A self-described liar (but supposedly one who lies to preserve larger truths), Baudolino shares a miraculous story involving his experiences as the adoptive son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, his participation in Frederick’s campaigns, his university studies in Paris, his quest to find the kingdom of the Prester John (a mythical lost kingdom of Christians in the east), his romantic relationships, and his attempts to solve the mystery of Frederick’s death.

Like a sort of high medieval Forrest Gump, Baudolino’s story places him as a cause or key player in a number of historical events of his time, such the founding of Alessandria in Italy, the writing of source materials that would lead to Carmina Burana and Eschenbach’s Parzifal, the creation of the myth of the holy grail, the delivery of a forged letter claiming to be from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor, and Frederick I’s death by drowning. Baudolino and the other characters also spend much time engaging in scientific, epistemological, and theological debates that were going on in the period (including the existence of the vacuum, the correct understanding of the trinity and divinity generally, and the best model for mapping earth and the stars). These historical connections will be entertaining for any medieval history buff, but they can also serve as an occasion for reading more about medieval history to understand the plot and Eco’s many allusions (as they did for me).

Baudolino feels something like a book Borges would have written if he cared about adventure plots and colorful characters as much as he cared about historical oddities and metafiction. But like Borges, Eco creates a fantastical world that is almost entirely male. I found the way Eco examines masculinity and stereotypically masculine themes like honor, war, and fatherhood to be fascinating and far from chauvinistic, but the stereotypical simplicity of his female characters makes me concerned that Eco is not simply interested in a focused study of male characters and themes, but is rather unable or unwilling to meaningfully incorporate female characters. (I admit, however, that this is the only book of Eco’s I have read.)

Despite this, I would still recommend this book if you’re interested in theology, philosophy, literary theory, or the history of the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe. I’d also recommend it to fans of Borges who wish he’d written a novel. But if you’re looking specifically for an exciting adventure, plausible historical fiction, a good mystery, or even just decent female characters, you’ll likely be disappointed by Eco’s attempt to do so many things at once. Measured against a more traditional fantasy or mystery novel, Baudolino will likely seem unfocused, overwrought, and generally unrewarding. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Baudolino as a middle ground between a work of plot-driven genre fiction and an abstruse exercise in literary technique and historical research. Although the result is somewhat disjointed and sometimes hastily developed (despite its 521-page length), Eco creates an entertaining adventure and engages in fascinating and challenging questions about truth and language without making abstract questions transparently the point of his plot.

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