The fourth novel by the prolific Italian novelist Umberto Eco (1932–2016) charts the adventurous life of the eponymous hero, a medieval adventurer and consummate liar with a gift for making the most of chance. The book opens with Baudolino rescuing the hapless historian and Byzantine court official Niketas from the marauding knights of the Fourth Crusade during the sack of Constantinople in April 1204. As he and Niketas wait for the chaos in the burning city to subside, Baudolino narrates the story of his extraordinary life and his continuing quest for the mythical kingdom of Prester John.
Baudolino has certainly had an interesting life. Born in 1137, in what later becomes the city of Alessandria, a chance childhood encounter with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Great rescues Baudolino from his impoverished environment. As Frederick’s adopted son, he is given an excellent education, but Baudolino is soon stealing historical parchments written by Frederick’s uncle, Bishop Otto, in order to write the first draft of his life story. The young Baudolino’s desire to construct his own version of reality is to become a recurring theme in the novel, for when his theft of Otto’s manuscripts appears to be on the brink of discovery, Baudolino simply forges new ones from his own imagination. Even when he is sent to Paris to be schooled (and to avoid his growing attraction to Frederick’s new wife, the young Empress Beatrice), his habit of generating false realities continues. In the company of Abdul, a musician with a taste for intoxicating “green honey,” and the Poet, whose poems are actually written by Baudolino, our hero writes a fake letter to Frederick from Prester John, the legendary priest-king of the Orient. This act marks the beginning of the quest that dominates Baudolino’s life; he dedicates all his energies to locating the magical kingdom of Prester John, but he and his friends only set off on their journey after the death of Frederick in 1190.
Up until this point, Baudolino follows Eco’s previous novels in its mixing of detective fiction with philosophical speculation, producing a complex discussion about the nature of history. It is clear to Niketas, and the reader, that Baudolino is not to be trusted. He constructs elaborate lies about his life and his involvement in historical events, but we are carried away by the sheer innovation of Baudolino’s implausible narration. Eco uses this focus on lies and lying to interrogate our understanding of history, presenting it as a collective illusion that is constructed to fit the demands of the present rather than the events of the past. For Eco, language constantly struggles under its dual nature, for it is both a source of imaginative creativity and a vehicle for conveying truth. Baudolino’s colorful accounts manipulate these functions of language, blurring the border between real and possible worlds.
However, Baudolino differs from Eco’s previous fictions in that after the death of Frederick, the novel’s attention shifts from historical events to the medieval obsession with the fantastic journey. In their search for Prester John, Baudolino and his friends travel through lands inhabited by every imaginable sort of monster, all of which originate in classical and medieval texts. Conflicts between the monster tribes are grounded in religious differences, and here the novel draws attention to the often spurious ideological distinctions that provoke mutual animosity. Amid all the basilisks, manticores, and harpies, Eco is making a comment about the human desire to classify and differentiate in order to create systems of order and give structure to our lives and our histories. And yet, as Baudolino’s lies indicate, these orders and systems often eclipse the very histories they were intended to preserve, until it is impossible to identify the true nature of the past. So beneath the entertaining exotica of Baudolino’s narrative lies Eco’s real interest: How do we narrate the past when language itself becomes untrustworthy?
Eco’s trademark games with language and narrative structure are just as apparent in Baudolino as they are in his previous novels, as is the humor with which he broaches these difficult ideas about history and language. Even so, Baudolino is one of the most mysterious of Eco’s characters, a man whose past and sense of self are constantly being remade by his own imagination, and who no longer knows where his own lies end and reality begin. In Baudolino we see the individual lost in language and isolated by the compulsion to create new versions of reality. The relationship between the sign and its object is destabilized in the hectic extravagance of Baudolino’s world, and Eco’s novel asks us to question the extent to which our own worlds are similarly disordered by the deceptively slippery nature of language.
Farronato, Cristina. “Umberto Eco’s Baudolino and the Language of Monsters.” In Umberto Eco, 3 vols., edited by Mike Gane and Nicholas Gane, 3:147–167. London: SAGE Publications, 2005.