I’ve had this on my self as needing to be read for… a long time. I have finally got to it as part of my effort to make a dent in the to-be-read shelf. I read the first couple of pages to see whether I did want to read it, and I did. It opens with Baudolino starting to write his memoir, in a mixture of languages and appalling spelling and with the occasional bit of Latin intruding because Baudolino wasn’t able to scrape it all off the parchment. It’s unclear whether Baudolino is telling the truth … and basically that’s the motif of the entire book.
The entire premise of the book is to explore the ideas of truth and ‘truthiness’ (which I think Stephen Colbert developed) – when does a thing that’s not true become true because it’s been claimed to be true enough times? – and notions of faith, and honesty, and history. And basically it’s a big sprawling story about one man claiming to have connections to a whole bunch of stuff that is generally accepted to have happened in history along with other things that exist in myth and legend. It’s sprawling and epic and quite remarkable. As you would expect from Umberto Eco.
Baudolino is telling his story to a Byzantine man he’s rescued during the Crusaders’ sack of that city; Baudolino isn’t part of the sacking but he looks Frankish enough to be able to get around. He’s telling the story as a way of making sense of his life, searching for the meaning he hopes to see in his experiences. So there’s two narratives going on here, as Baudolino and his friend look to get out of Constantinople, and the story of Baudolino himself. It’s the second, of course, that’s the most interesting bit. His story begins with meeting Frederick Barbarossa and being adopted by him because he, Baudolino, tells such interesting stories and appears to be a good luck charm of sorts. It then progresses through Baudolino going to university in Paris, and then various escapades with Frederick, and eventually going on a mind-boggling journey to find the country of Prester John. Along the way he encounters the story of the Grasal (Grail), meddles in politics, makes and loses friends, nearly dies several times, and is rarely accounted as much of a scoundrel as he actually is.
Note: the fact that this book is translated is remarkable, and the translator – William Weaver – should get more acknowledgement than he does. It’s beautifully written.