- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 29, 2002

Umberto Eco is an unusual celebrity, an Italian intellectual famous for his novels which, despite their esoteric subjects and erudite style, are surprisingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic "The Name of the Rose" has sold more than 30 million copies. Between novels, the professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna cranks out monographs such as "Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages" and "The Limits of Interpretation," as well as essay collections compiling his thoughts on culture and society.
Few authors have Mr. Eco's storytelling talent and mental agility, a combination that has enabled the author to create his own genre, the intellectual adventure story. It is impossible to categorize Mr. Eco's fiction, however, for he borrows happily from burlesque and fantasy as well as history and philosophy. His prose, as reviewers have noted over two decades, is idiosyncratic and encyclopedic, brilliant and Byzantine.
Byzantine certainly describes Mr. Eco's latest effort, "Baudolino," set during the sack of Constantinople at the start of the 13th century. Like "The Name of the Rose," a murder mystery that unfolds inside a 14th-century monastery, "Baudolino" takes place during the Middle Ages, but here Eco sends his peripatetic characters on crusades across Europe and Asia, including a long sojourn into uncharted land (here be monsters) in search of the fabled kingdom of Prester John.
The novel opens with our hero, Baudolino, now nearing 60, on the lam in Constantinople as barbarians plunder the city. By chance he rescues Niketas, a court official (chancellor of the basileus of Byzantium, to be exact, and Mr. Eco is when it comes to historical detail). The two make their way through catacombs (the first of many labyrinthine journeys) to a safe home in the friendly Genoese quarter. While they wait out the siege, Baudolino narrates the story of his life, prompted in part by Niketas's plan to write a history (the writing of history, personal or scholarly, becomes a central theme of the book).
As Baudolino tells it, he was born into a peasant family in northern Italy but adopted by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who sent him to Paris to be educated and then employed him as a trusted emissary. Because the late-12th century was an interesting time for diplomacy (better described as warmongering), Baudolino recounts scheme after scheme in which he and his compatriots conspire to change the course of civilization: Our hero legitimizes the Holy Roman Empire, invents the legend of the Holy Grail, and restages the journey of the 12 Magi (and fabricates relics of the original Three Wise Men), to mention a few of his accomplishments.
Mainly, Baudolino dreams about and plots to find the rumored domain of a heretic Christian king known as Presbyter Johannes, a discovery that would radically alter the geopolitics of the time. "The destiny of Christianity, and of every empire that wants to be holy and Roman, lies beyond the Moors," says Bishop Otto, uncle and adviser to Frederick and mentor to Baudolino. "There is a Christian realm beyond Jerusalem and the lands of the infidel. An emperor capable of joining the two reigns would reduce the infidel empire and the empire of Byzantium itself to a pair of abandoned islands, lost in the vast sea of glory!"
It's Otto's dying wish that Baudolino find Priest John and secure Frederick's authority by forging an alliance.
Baudolino, in this sense, is a record of the protagonist's obsession with an impossible goal one that needn't be real to be true, or achievable to be satisfying. The power of the mythical kingdom, like that of any icon or idea, is its ability to move men.
"If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales, otherwise your History would become monotonous," Otto tells Baudolino. "But you must act with restraint. The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things."
Eco is in no hurry to send Baudolino on his search, however. We spend well over half the book debating medieval geography (is Earth round or shaped like a tabernacle?) at the University of Paris, laying siege to various recalcitrant Italian cities (accompanied with analyses of the efficacies and ethics of political and military strategies), and pondering the existence of a universal vacuum (an important issue in medieval science and theology). It sounds academic, but Mr. Eco, a verbal vaudevillian, enlivens the proceedings with bawdy jokes, illicit romance and an unsolved murder.
Nevertheless, the author's rhetorical jabs and feints, his rococo narrative conceit and his Latinate diction (accented with generous Greek) can get tedious. And, as Samuel Johnson chastised William Shakespeare, that he couldn't resist a pun, so we might admonish Mr. Eco, who can't refrain from arcane speculation.
In one chapter, he marches Baudolino and his traveling companions over burning deserts (where they are accosted by giant scorpions and three-headed snakes) across a river of flowing stones and through a forest of eternal night, only to find shelter in a city populated by skiapods (one-legged men), blemmyae (no heads, eyes and mouth on their chests) and panotians (ears down to their knees, like batfls wings). In the next, our fearless adventurers pass the time arguing obscure theological points (everything except how many angels can fit on the head of a pin). Here, for instance, a skiapod named Gavagai explains to Baudolino why their interpretation of Christianity is superior to that of the blemmyae:
"The Father is the most perfect and most distant from us that can exist in the universe, no? And therefore how could he have generated a Son? Men generate sons in order to prolong themselves through offspring and to live in them also in the time they themselves will never see because they will have been gathered by death.
"But a God who has to generate a son would not be perfect from the beginning of centuries. And if the Son had existed from the beginning together with the Father, being of his same divine substance or nature, whatever you may call it (here Gavagai became confused, using Greek terms like ousia, hyposthasis, physis, and hyposopon, which not even Baudolino managed to decipher), we would have the incredible case of a God, by definition not generated, who has been generated from the beginning of time.
"Therefore the Word, which the Father generates because he must concern himself with the redemption of the human race, is not of the same substance as the Father, is generated later, surely before the world, and is superior to every other creature, but just as surely inferior to the Father."
A one-legged creature discussing Christian dogma with renegade crusaders pretending to be Magi … this is the essence of Mr. Eco's droll imagination. Readers lacking advanced degrees in medieval studies can be excused for growing impatient with these interminable debates, but "Baudolino" is meant to be a leisurely literary banquet with offerings for connoisseur and commoner alike.
Mr. Eco echoes Plato, Chaucer and Milton while referencing Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and Stan Lee. Few writers are so comfortable conjoining Thomas a Becket and Samuel Beckett.
But "Baudolino" isn't just pastiche: literary banquet is too glib a metaphor for this book, better described as a logophilic stew, well simmered and richly spiced, blending history and hysteria, mythology and mirth. Mr. Eco cooks his books for readers of hearty appetite, who come to the table expecting a full course … and original creations.

Rex Roberts is a freelance writer, editor and graphic designer living in New York City.


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