Umberto Eco - Baudolino

Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were a pretty happy time. Sure, you had your occasional bubonic plague and witch burning, but in comparison, the Romans had cholera and fed innocent people to the lions.

The embodiment of this carefree, cheerful lifestyle is Baudolino, a poor nobody who finds himself whisked away from his home and thrown into the court of a king who adopts him like a son. Baudolino watches his 'father' Frederick wreak havoc upon Italy's stubbornly resisting cities.

In the second half of the book, Baudolino sets off in search of the mysterious Priest John, who supposedly rules over a land in the East. Even the existence of this Priest is questionable, but as we discover, the Middle Ages were also a time in which concepts like truth and proof had different meanings than they do today. Not only do people reason in chaotic, unpredictable ways, they also don't find the truth all that relevant. Baudolino and his friends carry a number of skulls around on their travels, and try to sell them off as the same relic, John the Baptist's head, in various locations.

The best part of the book describes Baudolino's arrival in a faraway city populated by strange creatures such as the one-legged sciapod, the headless blemnya, and so on. Eco lets Baudolino tell these stories with a straight face as he tells them to a friend, which makes them all the better for us, the modern audience. What Eco attempts to convey is that, in those days, these strange creatures really did exist --much like God really existed at the time: they were as real to people as a tree or a car are to us today.

Where Eco fails, as he has in the past, is in the utter absence of any true emotion or passion in the book. Here, as in, say, The name of the rose, there is a love story somewhere, but it is as forced as J. Random Babe tagging along a Schwarzenegger or a Bruce Willis in an action movie. Eco's strength, then, is his encyclopedic knowledge and in the ability to play with truth and fiction.

Posted by cronopio at 02:17 AM, June 30, 2004