Friday, February 4, 2005

Invention of truth: Umberto Eco's Baudolino

Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics and a several-time bestselling author who appeals to me on a number of different levels. His novel Baudolino is at the same time a fantastic historical novel and a philosophical exploration into the nature and experience of historical truth. I won't pretend to be a competent reviewer of this immensely complicated piece of literature; I will stick to my own joyful experience in reading it.

On the surface, the novel is set in medieval Europe and centers on a poor Italian man named Baudolino, who is not yet an adult when the novel begins. The story is told by an unreliable narrator who is clearly concealing what most readers want to count on as facts in a historical account. The story is told in the context of Baudolino recounting his amazing and fantastical life's story to another man, Master Niketas.

Master Niketas, an eastern Greek, is a historian and a skeptic, priding himself on not believing most of the outlandish details of Baudolino's incredible story. We hear the story from Baudolino's mouth, but always in the background is Master Niketas' skeptical eye.

The basic narrative of Baudolino's life is ruled by two constant themes. First, Baudolino is amazingly adept at languages: he need only hear a few sentences of another language and he can soon begin to communicate in it. Second, Baudolino is a most astounding liar, even by his own admission. In fact, the basic tension throughout the book is held up by the fact that Baudolino himself can no longer remember which events actually took place and which he fabricated but then began to believe to have actually happened. He approaches Master Niketas in hopes of having some help in figuring out what actually happened.

Baudolino recounts his adventures that range across the whole of the medieval world. He first comes across the emperor without recognizing him. Baudolino had just been in the midst of an indiscretion with a young lady from the village when the emperor and his men step out of the mists and asks what he is doing in the wood. He promptly fabricates a story of how he was speaking with a saint who appeared to him in the wood. Taking this as a favorable sign, the emperor proceeds to question him about it, and unknowingly, Baudolino invents a false prophecy about the victory of the imperial army over a rebelling city nearby. The emperor immediately takes Baudolino into his service as an advisor, and the story takes off from there.

Baudolino goes on to invent the Holy Grail and a dozen other holy relics along the way, eventually inventing a whole magical kingdom supposedly ruled by the original Magi from the east. The further from his village Baudolino gets, the more outlandish his tale becomes, until (400 pages later) he is captured by cynocephali ("dog-headed" soldiers from India) and escapes by stealing their rocs and flying back to Constantinople at an altitude unattainable to angels. The adventure along the way is the real joy of this novel; the characters he meets, the philosophical discussions along the way, and the adventures in the midst of which he finds himself are a series of wonderful gems. Eco is a superb master of medieval history and his attention to detail and insight into the minds of the time is vivid and sweeping.

But the fascinating part of Baudolino is in the exploration of historical truth. On the surface, it appears that Eco is undermining any reliability of historical fact because of plausible deceptions made by those who would record it. But at a deeper level, he frequently makes known that the basic flow of history cannot have been fabricated because of its sheer inertia. Even lies told for reasons only important at the time lend their own truth to the larger picture. Objective fact and human perception form the basis of the mysteries explored in Baudolino. It is one of the few novels I have read that manages to please on every level: the writing is flawless, the detail exquisite, the plot engaging and fast-paced, the themes involved important, and the characters memorable and engaging. This is a novel that will remain on my shelf to be revisited again.

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