Onyx reviews: Baudolino by
By definition, a novel is filled with lies. Readers willingly go along with
the fabrication to be entertained. The eponymous character of Baudolino extends
the levels of falsehood by making up his story as he tells it. He recounts his
legendary and mythical adventures to Niketas Choniates, a man whose life he
saves during the sacking of Constantinople using his traditional weapons of
bluster and misdirection.
Born to a poor family in northern Italy, Baudolino's saga begins early in the
twelfth century when he accidentally encounters Emperor Frederic—known to the
Italians as Barbarossa (red beard)—who has become separated from his troops in
a fog. Baudolino fascinates the emperor, who adopts him as a surrogate son.
Barbarossa finds Baudolino's candor and forthright criticism refreshing. For his
own part, Baudolino enjoys the attention and the opportunities his new life
Frederick sends Baudolino to Paris to extend his education, which is probably
for the best since the young man has fallen in love with the emperor's lovely
young wife. He writes to her daily but doesn't send the letters. Instead, he
composes her responses to his letters, inventing a fictional relationship
between them. This is Baudolino's first experience with creating something
imaginary that takes on a life of its own.
In Paris, he meets several men who will become lifelong friends. They discuss
social, philosophical and religious subjects. Their debates often enter the
realm of fantasy, but they begin to take their own creations seriously. Eco
returns to a subject he first explored in Foucault's Pendulum, where an invented
conspiracy becomes real through the act of its invention.
They devise religious artifacts and relics and immediately invest their beliefs
in them. Often, Baudolino is motivated by love for his surrogate father, who is
struggling to contain his empire. If Baudolino can get holy relics into
Barbarossa's hands by seemingly legitimate means, the emperor's status will be
Among Baudolino's creations are the Holy Grail, the bodies of the Magi and the
mythical Prester John, who rules in a fictitious kingdom far to the east, beyond
the known earth. He and his friends believe in the wooden cup they choose to
represent the cup Christ used at his last supper. "Faith makes things
become true," Baudolino says.
They spend months composing and fine-tuning a letter from Prester John to the
Emperor, describing his kingdom and the fantastical creatures that dwell there
and ultimately they branch out from one of the Crusades on a quest to discover
the very realm they invented. Along the way, Baudolino and his co-conspirators
distribute numerous fake heads of John the Baptist and he accidentally creates
the artifact that will become famous as the shroud of Turin.
The book is saturated in myth and fact. Eco knows his medieval history, using it
to good effect to create a foundation of truth for Baudolino's fiction. Many of
the events surrounding Baudolino's adventures are factual, though the inventive
rogue sometimes puts a twist on them, as in the depiction of Barbarossa's
drowning death during the third Crusade.
"You mustn't always believe what they tell you. We live in a world where
people invent the most incredible stories," Baudolino says. Eco is warning,
perhaps, that not everything happened they way it is written in history books.
The message is especially timely given recent revelations about invented stories
in our most highly esteemed newspapers.
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