Posts Tagged ‘William of Baskerville’

August favourites #7: detective fiction

August 7, 2018


I’ll come to my hero Sherlock Holmes in a few days’ time: he’s in a class of his own. And although I have a soft spot for the melancholy Czech detective Lieutenant Boruvka, created by one of my favourite writers, Josef Skvorecky, my award has to go to a writer who paid the greatest tribute possible to Holmes in his creation of the monk William of Baskerville, who puts his observational powers to work, assisted by his young novice Adso of Melk, against a background of monastical murder and the inquisition in the early fourteenth century. I’m referring to Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, which, as well as being a marvellous detective story, is also full of history and philosophy and relgion, as well as a poignant consideration of the nature of human love. In a way, the plot centres around a curious question: did Jesus ever laugh? It’s one of my top three novels of the twentieth century.

On spectacles…

February 8, 2015

I have been thinking lately about the fact that I would not be able to read or write at all without my glasses… I have needed reading glasses since I was about fifteen or so, and have gradually become more and more dependent on them. I’ve always been ridiculously long-sighted, and this is still the case although I don’t think it’s as sharp as it once was. But the shorter range vision has definitely degenerated with age.

For about fifteen years now, I’ve given in and worn glasses all the time, bifocals so that the distance vision can be more or less unchanged, but the reading segment set to my eyes. And over the years I came to realise that I could read less and less without the glasses – I used to be able to squint, or juggle with the distance and make things out, but now print remains an indecipherable blur without the specs… and I’ve never wanted to even contemplate contact lenses.

Why does all this bother me? Because, I realise, that in the past, that would have been the end of reading, unless I were wealthy enough to have a servant to read aloud to me, and that would not be the same. I think about William of Baskerville, the detective monk in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, with his primitive glasses, a pair of hand-ground lenses set in a forked frame, and how these were regarded almost as witchcraft by people at the time, and also how completely lost he was when it was realised how crucial these were to him, and so they were stolen. And, of course, in the middle ages, you couldn’t just go out and buy another pair. Then, as now, you needed an expert craftsman, and they were very thin on the ground.

When I was teaching, one of my creative writing units involved imagining and discussing the relative usefulness and significance of the five senses to us, and deciding which one we would give up if we had to lose one; for me it was always a toss-up between sight (losing reading) and hearing (losing the ability to enjoy music); now it would be hearing I gave up, without a doubt; I just cannot imagine not being able to read. I am very glad we now have the technology which allows me to overlay maps with a magnifying sheet to see the small details, and the ability to adjust the fonts and their size on my e-reader. So hopefully I’m good to read for a long while yet…

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014


I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

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