So many stories are themselves about stories and storytelling. There is something about this basic act of creation and communication that captivates the human mind and spirit. Storytelling necessarily blurs the line between truth and falsehood; there is no way to relate any story, even history, with perfect truth, for we are all fallible and subjective beings. And history—that patchwork quilt of stories that make the grandest narrative of them all—is probably more lies than truth. We are blessed (or cursed) with a surfeit of information and records. In the past, history was as much myth as anything else, a conflation of received wisdom passed down through oral histories and the texts that had been preserved in monasteries or libraries. Moreover, the standards by which we judge what is true have changed as well.
So it was with much pleasure that I found myself gradually warming to Baudolino, this year’s annual year-end Umberto Eco read. The eponymous hero rescues Niketas, a court historian and official at Constantinople, during its sacking in 1204. This becomes the frame story for Baudolino’s other adventures, from his childhood adoption by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to his “discovery” of the Holy Grail and his quest to deliver it to the mythical kingdom of Prester John. Throughout the narrative, through the audience of Niketas, Eco reminds us to challenge and question Baudolino’s story—for he himself admits he is an accomplished liar, and plenty of episodes in this tale attest to that fact. Baudolino revisits familiar themes from other Eco novels I have read, and once again Eco proves himself one of the most intelligent, insightful, and interesting authors I’ve ever discovered.
Eco’s historical fiction captivates me because he puts his expertise as a medieval historian and semiotician to work to create authentic medieval individuals. I’m neither of those things, but I did take a course in Medieval & Tudor Drama in my undergrad days (and I’ve also stayed at a Holiday Inn). One of the most important things I learned from that class was the gulf in thought that exists between medieval people and twenty-first-century people. It’s not just a question of knowledge. Medieval society had a completely different view of the world, one steeped in spiritualism, mysticism, and religiosity, that in turn resulted in almost alien ways of thinking. In Baudolino, and similarly in The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before, Eco manages to tap into this different way of thinking as much as is possible. This makes the novels somewhat harder to read—because of the way the characters speak and act—but I love being able to slip, if only briefly and superficially, into the medieval mindset.
For an example of this, consider the kingdom of Prester John, the hunt for which becomes the focus of the last third of Baudolino. The novel includes several examples of contemporary mappa mundi, maps of the world as people saw it at the time, discussing the possible location of the kingdom among the “three Indias”. Thanks to centuries of maritime and aerial exploration, not to mention satellite mapping, we have an exhaustive idea of what the Earth looks like and where everything is (give or take a few nonexistent islands). The wider world was a much more mysterious place to twelfth-century Europeans. Places such as the Antipodes, Ultima Thule, and the Kingdom of Prester John were taken to exist simply because others had written about them—even if one was not quite sure where on a map these places might be located. I just found it fascinating to put myself in the mindset of someone who had such uncertainty about the disposition of the rest of the world.
Baudolino eventually persuades his adoptive father to mount an expedition to meet with Prester John. Before that happens, however, he oversees the forging of a letter from Prester John to Frederick (an episode inspired by an actual incident involving a letter purportedly from Prester John, which might be an early example of a viral message). And he “discovers” the Holy Grail, which he proposes Frederick might present to the vaunted Prester as a token of mutual respect between two leaders of Christian kingdoms. In both cases, Baudolino is perpetrating a bald-faced deception in the name of what he perceives as a greater good. This proves to be something Baudolino does time and again, as we see when he mediates between Frederick and the city Alessandria, which grew out of his own home village. Through clever tricks and no small amount of dissembling, Baudolino averts war several times over, while managing to allow both sides to save face.
Once on the hunt for the kingdom of Prester John, Baudolino, in a section reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels, encounters a strange land with creatures from classical mythology: skiapods and blemmyes and unicorns and satyrs. Once again, Eco reifies the mythical in order to demonstrate how close mythology and reality were to peoples of the 12th century. It’s easy to scoff at what we perceive as ignorance, but there is a fine epistemological point here: Baudolino and his comrades are as convinced of the veracity of their knowledge as we are of ours. Though full of fabrications himself, Baudolino sets off looking for the kingdom in earnest. While scientific method has certainly yielded important facts about the universe, we have our share of apocryphal anecdotes and even untrue certainties about the way the world works. (Just look at how we teach the science of flight, which is in reality so very complex, to elementary school students.)
Through the frame story and the stories Baudolino tells within his own narrative, we see how the careful use of fiction can affect the course of world events. Falsehood can quickly become truth, and lies can outlive the liar. Baudolino’s original Letter to Prester John, initially shelved rather than given to Frederick, somehow inspires one in the court of the Byzantine emperor. The Grail that he fabricates spawns a host of myths and quests all their own, with one of his companions commenting that it’s the search for the Grail that truly matters, and that it would be awful if anyone ever actually found it. Once a story has left the mouth or pen of the writer, it takes on an independence that can never be reclaimed, and despite the teller’s original intentions, the story mutates and evolves of its own accord, perhaps becoming unrecognizable in the process.
Baudolino is a blend of mystery and mysticism, mythology and medieval thought. It’s story and history intertwined to make something entirely unique and impressive. I hesitate to rank it next to Umberto Eco’s other efforts—it seems to share aspects with all of them, attesting to Eco’s ongoing fascination with the distinctions between truth and falsehood and how we verify history. At times this book is hard to read—no, strike that, this book in general can be difficult to grasp if one is not careful, because Eco tries his best to allow the reader to experience the medieval perspective on the world in all its temporal and spiritual layers. But reading it is an effort and an experience that is well worth it, in my opinion. As always, Eco makes me think and ponder upon what we know to be true and how we know it. This is always a valuable and cherished result of reading any book, and in this respect Eco doesn’t let me down.