Posts Tagged ‘Christian heresy’

Umberto Eco’s Baudolino: a tale for our times

June 18, 2020

81HNUy7Y7iL._AC_UY218_     I’ve read this – Eco’s second mediaeval masterpiece – several times, but for the first time in English, as when the novel was first published, the French translation came out a year before the English one. But I’ve wanted to read it in English for a long time, as Eco himself praised his translator William Weaver so highly. And it was very good, and also had me reflecting on my reading of French and my decreasing fluency with age in that language, for initially I found the English version of the novel much lighter, more flowing and easier to read…

What you have to wonder and marvel at is Eco’s total mastery of the mediaeval world, the confidence and knowledge which allows him to weave in every aspect of its ways of being and thinking into his novel… history, geography, theology, you name it, he can present it all from the mediaeval perspective.

From the outset, it’s a story about languages and understanding them, as Baudolino the hero has the ability quickly to learn and communicate in any dialect; given the travels and adventures he is to become involved in, this is a necessary. Along with this goes his ability to make things up, and for them then to become real and believed by many: this mediaeval trope has clearly reappeared in our less rational times…

As Constantinople burns and is looted once again, in the early thirteenth century, Baudolino rescues an official of that city and regales him with his life story, although we are constantly invited to be sceptical of this story-teller, who moves so seamlessly from fact to invention, from things that are to things that ought to be – and the thing is that, if something ought to be, then it surely is, somewhere, if only we knew where to find it. What you imagine as a possibility can become real just by fiat, by thinking of it; the borderline or demarcation is so much vaguer. This opens up a marvellous world of fantasy into which Eco weaves the mysterious death of the Emperor Frederick, and the quest for the (mythical?) Prester John, somewhere in the orient.

Having heard a rumour of this mysterious, very powerful Christian potentate somewhere in the East, Baudolino and friends make him real through writing letters from him to the Emperor, and convince themselves to go in search of him and present him with the holy Grail, a relic which they have ‘found’ – relics are manufactured to order in these times, six heads of John the Baptist in particular.

They encounter all sorts of weirdnesses – natural marvels and wondrous creatures – that were believed to exist in mediaeval times, such as those that adorn the frieze of the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi. The strange humanoid races that the travellers encounter as they approach the realm of Prester John are used to embody a huge range of Christian heresies, and open up an entire world of theological disputations such as were common in mediaeval times.

Again, Eco’s mediaevalism supports the nature of his story, which is not so much a novel with a plot and sharply defined characters (apart from the elusive eponymous hero) as a linear narrative in the style of the simpler and cruder mediaeval tale. As in mediaeval times, he does not shy away from copying others: thus there are links suggested between the Dalai Lama and the elusive Prester John, and at least one of the mysterious languages met in the orient is lifted from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s not for everyone and not an easy read, but if you’ve enjoyed The Name of the Rose, I highly recommend this as a marvellous yarn, full of surprises, knowledge and entertainment, and another example of Umberto Eco at his very best. And the exploration of truth, lies and make-believe is somehow alarmingly resonant today.

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