Baudolino by Umberto Eco
As a reader of this text I feel like I am in the middle of a postmodern laboratory experiment. For this set of clinical trials the Eco research unit is testing the application of intertextuality theory to the comic novel, having undergone two previous trials that I know of on the murder mystery – The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. The subject of these earlier excellent novels leant itself well to the fictionalisation of Eco’s main theme of the interpretation of truth. This latest novel, with its comic tone does not succeed as well.
The book (or perhaps I should say text?) centres on the character of Baudolino, a poor peasant boy catapulted to the court of Frederick Barbarossa, the German Holy Roman Emperor in the twelfth century. He rises on the basis of his own wits and ability to tell a tall tale to become Frederick’s adopted son and a key advisor. As such he finds himself connected with a number of the key events of the age and in particular the legend of Prester John, the Christian King who was supposed to live to the East beyond the lands of the Muslims. The book revolves around the search for this king. The theme of the book, however, is the main driving force of the narrative. Truth, its interpretation, its fabrication, its composition in texts and the metaphysical and scientific nature of it are at the heart of Baudolino.
As mentioned above truth also formed the theme of Eco’s other fictional works. Umberto Eco’s day job is as a Semiotician, a postmodern study of signs. His work is concerned with how perceived truth is constructed by texts. This interest seems to have become the raison d’etre for writing this novel. Unfortunately it takes away too much from the plot of the book and the actual narrative connected with the characters. Baudolino himself, the main character, is interesting and he certainly experiences enough events. However, the author rarely keeps his narrative sharp enough and connected enough to drive the story forward with tension. The book reads like one of those dull medieval travel books which recounts a series of remarkable events, but with no unifying theme to connect them. Only twice in the book are there moments of real tension, which were hinted at early in the book. Unfortunately Eco does not use his narrative skills to keep these going through the rest of the story.
I was looking forward to reading this book as I had really enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, partly because of their setting and themes, but mostly because Eco was a good storyteller. For some reason he seems to have left his fiction writing skills at the door on this one. This experiment has failed.