Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Baudolino by Umberto Eco

"Baudolino," he would say to him, "you are a born liar."

"Why do you say such a thing, master?"

"Because it's true. But you mustn't think I'm reproaching you. 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. 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."

Baudolino's story begins with a lie: Pretending, and half-believing, that he has seen a vision his namesake Saint Baudolino, predicting a German victory in his Italian community, he is adopted by a grateful German knight who turns out to be the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. As a liar, Baudolino's services are indispensable to the Empire, which feeds off of them. For example, what can be done when neither the Empire nor a besieged city can hold out any longer, but neither wants to endure the ignominy of defeat? Baudolino knows: you stuff a skinny horse with the last wheat remaining in the village, so when the besieging soldiers cut it apart, they see its insides bursting with the stuff and report that the city has enough food to endure a siege of a thousand years. What do you do when your love cannot be returned, because you love the Empress, your adoptive mother? Baudolino knows: you write both sides of the love letter. Baudolino's lies are far from deceit; in fact, Frederick trusts him absolutely, knowing that if Baudolino lies, it is in his best interests.

Eventually, one of Baudolino's tricks becomes more potent than the others. He writes a letter from the mythical Prester John, the Christian monarch of a mythical kingdom far in the East to Frederick, thinking that it would give the Emperor legitimacy and freedom from the Pope. Baudolino and his friends labor at the letter, filling it with descriptions of brilliant, jeweled palaces and scraps from various legends. The letter is never "sent," but it begins to take a life of its own, and soon Baudolino and his friends embark on a journey to find Prester John, whom they say must exist because they believe in him. This is Baudolino's commanding idea, that imagination has generative power, that lies--or myths, or stories, or poems--can become powerful truths:

"There is nothing better than imagining other worlds," he said, "to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn't yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one."

To emphasize this, Baudolino takes with him a cup that belonged to his dying father, which he will present as the Grasal, or Holy Grail. As a symbol of dignified simplicity, and the esteem a man holds for his father, the lie transforms the cup. It becomes, if not the Grasal itself, something at least as significant and powerful.

The second half of the book, which contains the company's trip into the East, is stronger than its first. The fantastic creatures and places of the forged letter turn out to be real, though because the entire book is framed as a story told by Baudolino to the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates, it is never clear what details are "true" and which are "lies." Eco discounts this question as neither useful nor interesting, and of course, as a fictional narrative, they are all lies in a sense. In the town of Pndapetzim, which may or may not lie on the border of Prester John's lands, the ruler recounts the wonderful stories that he has heard of the West, where Baudolino and his company have come from:

...he said he was eager to learn from them, who had visited the fabled West, if truly there existed in that land all the wonders of which he had read in so many books that had passed through his hands. He asked if there were truly a country known as Enotria, where the tree grew which drips the beverage that Jesus had transformed into his own blood. If in that land the bread was not pressed flat, half-a-finger thick, but swelled miraculously every morning, at the cock's crow, in the form of a fruit, soft and light beneath a golden crust. If it was true the churches there were to be seen built free of the cliffs, if the palace of the great priest of Rome had ceilings and beams of perfumed wood from the legendary island of Cyprus. If this palace had doors of blue stone mixed with the horns of the cerastes, which prevented anyone from bringing poison inside, and windows of a stone that allowed the passing of light.

There is fact mixed in among this fiction: It is true, for example, that wine grapes grow in the west though they do not in Pndapetzim, but it is only the imaginary power of the legend that imbues that with the significance of Eucharist. Lies, Baudolino contends, have the ability to transfigure the commonplace.

There is much more to Baudolino--in fact, too much more. Eco tosses in so many bits and pieces from medieval history and legend that the result has a tendency to overwhelm, and some things get lost in the shuffle. This might be overlooked in the book's adventurous second half, but the first is both overstuffed and slow. The Name of the Rose, despite being thematically complex, was structured around a simple mystery: Who is killing the monks? Baudolino, by contrast, lacks a driving force, and though it too contains a mystery (the Emperor Frederick is killed in a locked room), the solution is so late coming, so convoluted, and so unnecessary to the progress of the novel that it is far more difficult to care.

But despite its flaws, Baudolino is ultimately too imaginative and too exuberant about its source material to fail. It falls short of its ambitions--how could it not, when its topic is the imaginative power that creates mythology and scripture!--but it is, at the very least, a lot of fun.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

So this is basically Life of Pi.