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.
Things that Baudolino appears to be involved with: the alleged letter from Prester John that set fire to Western Christendom in the twelfth century; the spread of the grail story (and my goodness that thread is a knotty one in terms of truth and truthiness and what really matters); the politics of being the Holy Roman Emperor and trying to get the Italian cities to acknowledge Frederick’s overlordship.
From a distance one of the things that really intrigues me is the combination of the more historical elements – the insertion of this figure into actual European history – and then the story of Baudolino’s epic, dangerous, and eventually ludicrous journey to the lands near that of Prester John. Because the first half all reads as basically viable; it’s a historical novel, and it’s not anything other authors haven’t done before, to explore real history through the eyes of an everyman. The second half isn’t that unusual either except in that it’s not usually added to a historical novel with claims of veracity. And I guess this is part of the playfulness of Eco – if you accept that most of what Baudolino is saying in the first half is, or could be, true, then how do you deal with the later bits about rocs and half-goat women? How do you justify accepting parts of a story as true and rejecting others? What criteria are adequate for making such a distinction?
Baudolino himself is involved in those sorts of questions, and is well aware of it. He and his friends writer the letter from Prester John… and are convinced that Prester John is real and ought to be discovered by European Christians. Baudolino hears that story of the grail and then takes a cup from his father and calls it the grail… and then is involved in a dangerous series of events that basically presuppose this object actually being the grail. Which everyone immediately involved in knows is not the case. Self deception? Maybe. Commenting on the process of writing and telling and formulating history? Totally.
I can’t imagine re-reading this but I’m really glad it’s moved off my to-be-read pile. It’s going to keep making me think about how history is remembered and recorded, and how the stories we tell ourselves – as individuals and as a community – can transcend/transmute/transpose what ‘really’ happened. I guess the question is, to what extent does absolute truth matter? After all, we live in a post-modern world which means we have to acknowledge the impossibility of ever knowing just exactly what ‘actually’ happened, living as we do in a world with a multiplicity of perspectives. How do you privilege one above another? And what if something is not strictly speaking true but it could be? Or should be?