It is 1204, and Constantinople is being sacked and burned by the knights of the fourth Crusade. Amid the carnage and confusion Baudolino saves a Byzantine historian and high court official from certain death at the hands of the crusading warriors, and proceeds to tell his own fantastical story.
That isn’t much of a blurb I’ll grant you but this is Umberto Eco’s work and he always writes with a quality lacking in many other authors so it really doesn’t need much in the way of encouragement to pick up. Nevertheless without giving too much more of the story away I shall endeavour to encourage you to read it anyway.
The book starts with our titular protagonist Baudolino learning to write and quickly establishes he is a serial liar and that that is the key to the book. The plot is based on a succession of lies framed in a story told to us by an unreliable narrator, despite or perhaps because of this, the reader is drawn in as fantasy and real life collide in a crazy tale of high adventure which may or may not be entirely accurate.
The exploration of how history is written and from what points of view as well as the idea of choosing what to believe is an interesting one explored throughout the text. The idea of both the real and the fantastical living together in religion is one point Eco makes time and again, he grounds this in the ideas of the 12th century, both of faith (and the arguments between various sects) and science. Like Eco’s earlier work The Name of the Rose, the ideas of the day are thoroughly explored and extremely well researched and really help to give the book an extra immersive quality. There is plenty here the reader will want to delve into and explore, be it the history or the satire aimed at many authors amongst them Sir John Mandeville, Voltaire and Jonathan Swift as well as the authentic style of the time in regards to listing people and creatures in detail just like the literature then was prone to do.
A lot is crammed into this book there is an ingenious locked room mystery, The Crusades, Prester John and many other fascinating things with which I would do you a disservice to mention here and ruin the discovery for you. All this makes for a compelling read crammed full of magical ideas and real history but rather than an endless procession of ideas, it is woven into a story that may begin a little slowly but once it gets going can at times become a whirlwind of adventure and enjoyable prose.
The lies that Baudolino tells affect lives and the swirl of history, richly investing in myths, legends and mysticism aplenty. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch him and his friends get sucked into their own lies, believing their own hype and questioning what is actually real. The plot can feel a bit aimless at times but just go with those bits and savour the language and the twists in the incredible journey, its one big romance from start to finish. I didn’t really care about Baudolino as a character, however the adventures he goes on were fun to be a part of and that is where the story is best.
Despite the liberties with truth there is something wonderful about being sucked along into his escapades (or imagination), even the mythological creatures fit in well with the richness of the writing, which is a complex weaving of deceit that is a pleasure to be caught up in. Always clever, frequently enchanting, always fantastical and absurd and more importantly a great deal of fun that stimulates the literary palate and encourages further reading around its subjects for the sheer joy of learning.