For those readers familiar with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Baudolino is similar fare: more than 500 pages written in a fairly complex form; lively, interesting characters who make it easy to soak up large chunks of medieval history. Perhaps any era – when closely examined – can seem a time of groundbreaking change and significant transition towards the present day. This book is set in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, when the first universities are being established in Bologna and Paris, the Holy Roman Empire is returning in a reincarnation that will later be Germany, and conflicts in authority between the Church and the emperor are coming to a head.
The central character is a peasant boy from northwestern Italy with a tremendous capacity for languages – and fabulation. The book’s dominating narrative device is that Baudolino has an uncanny ability to turn up in the proximity of important people at historical turning points. And more than once he may have altered the course of history by whispering opportunely in the Emperor’s ear or serving as a bridge between the Italian locals and the imperial court. Baudolino is a congenital liar, but also a well-meaning man. This combination gets him into very big trouble. He knows of the discrepancy, but he can’t change his nature: “And I may also have invented: I spoke to him of cities I had never visited, of battles I had never fought, of princesses I had never possessed.” Niketas, the listener to whom he tells the entire story of his life over the course of the book, says: “You were hastening his death, carrying him to the extreme frenzy, the consumption of all the senses. And you were satisfying your own taste for fairy tales; you were proud of your inventions.” But Baudolino does so to make others happy.
One repeated theme is the huge business done in relics: “...the sponge soaked in gall and wormwood that was offered to Our Lord as he died, only now it’s dry ... a case which once contained a piece of the bread consecrated at the Last Supper.” They’re at an interesting intersection between religion and superstition, leading to discussions of gullibility – people fall prey to such schemes because they so long to believe. At one fascinating juncture they arrive in a land where different mystical creatures live together in harmony despite physical differences, but have problems based on the doctrinal differences in what they believe about Christ or the Trinity. Here, Eco expounds on different ways of understanding the tenets of Christianity.
Baudolino contains every legend or rumor you’ve ever heard about the Middle Ages, and most of its history, too. Sometimes there’s too much to retain or follow. With untiring energy, new characters are introduced, new references to historical events – it would be surprising if anyone could keep them all straight. When a city is taken over, it is sacked and all its residents are forced to flee. Entire populaces are forced onto the street without their belongings, houses burned to the ground, churches stripped of their valuable relics. This happens so often that the reader’s credulity – and interest – are strained.
Baudolino has the eclectic exuberance of Salman Rushdie’s novels, but one senses that the source of the energy differs. Rushdie mixes popular and classical culture at a rollicking tempo, reflecting India’s pulsatingly vibrant, sensual contemporary life and mythology. Umberto Eco is a scholar who has immersed himself in historical texts and manuscripts and also observed human nature.