Head back to the 1200s with Umberto Eco

October 13, 2002|By Adam Kirsch | By Adam Kirsch,Special to the Sun

Baudolino, by Umberto Eco. Harcourt. 528 pages. $27.

More than 20 years ago, Umberto Eco, an Italian professor of semiotics, had an unlikely best seller with The Name of the Rose, a detective novel set in a medieval monastery and loaded with information about philosophy and theology.

Now, after two more novels buoyed with high-culture trivia, Eco returns to the Middle Ages with Baudolino. The playful erudition and vast intellectual range are back, but the spirit has changed from mystery to comedy. If The Name of the Rose was sponsored by Arthur Conan Doyle and Jorge Luis Borges, Baudolino finds its models in the Odyssey, Candide and Gulliver's Travels.

The novel is the life story of Baudolino, as told by himself during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. But it quickly becomes clear that he is no reliable narrator. He has taken to heart the advice of his first teacher, Bishop Otto: "If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales, otherwise your History would become monotonous."

His own history is anything but monotonous; by the time it's over, Baudolino will have discovered the Holy Grail, been enslaved by men with the heads of dogs, and fathered a child by a goat-woman who keeps a pet unicorn. And he will penetrate -- almost -- the legendary kingdom of Prester John, the tantalizing Promised Land that Europe hoped to find in the uncharted East.

A semiliterate Italian peasant, the young Baudolino wins the favor of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, by displaying the vivid imagination that will get him into so much trouble later on. He tells the emperor that he has had a vision of an imperial victory in battle; it's a lie, but an important lesson in the power of telling people what they want to hear.

For the emperor adopts Baudolino as a son, sends him to school and employs him as a diplomat. This career makes Baudolino both a picaresque hero and a mobile tutor in the ways of the medieval world. He experiences firsthand the rivalry of pope and emperor, the court politics of Byzantium and the barbarity of the Crusades.

Still more important, he absorbs all the major intellectual currents of the 12th century, its ideas about science, theology, philosophy, poetry and romance. At the heart of Baudolino is Eco's exploration of the medieval attitude toward truth. Without a modern sense of scientific rigor, the most brilliant minds allowed their desires and religious beliefs to determine what is true.

Prester John is a wish so powerful as to distort geography itself. As one character says, "You don't have to have been in a place in order to know everything about it. ... Otherwise sailors would be more learned than theologians." Baudolino exploits this malleable idea of knowledge, to his own benefit, but still more for what he believes to be the common good. In his wild, prolific imagination, he strongly resembles his creator, and the story they jointly tell makes for an entertaining and illuminating novel.

Adam Kirsch formerly was assistant literary editor of The New Republic. His first book of poems, The Thousand Wells, was just published by Ivan R Dee. He is working on a book on postwar American poetry.

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