43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Lie, the Fantasy, and Recorded History as Fact?
Expect the unexpected from Eco. Playful with words, concepts, and history, Eco will twist your conception of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, his court, the third and fourth Crusades, paradise on Earth, religious dogma, relics and their sources, till it becomes difficult to tell the real from the unreal. So much so that when two thirds into the book Eco changes from his...
Published on December 9, 2002 by Patrick Shepherd
102 of 107 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Travelogue Through the Middle Ages
I adored Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE and FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM - and hated THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE. Umberto Eco's newest novel, BAUDOLINO, lies somewhere in between. In it, Eco returns to familiar territory: the Middle Ages and the theological philosophies that shaped the times. He begins his story during the Fourth Crusade when Constantinople is under attack. A...
Published on January 15, 2003 by Debbie Lee Wesselmann
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102 of 107 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Travelogue Through the Middle Ages,
I adored Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE and FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM - and hated THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE. Umberto Eco's newest novel, BAUDOLINO, lies somewhere in between. In it, Eco returns to familiar territory: the Middle Ages and the theological philosophies that shaped the times. He begins his story during the Fourth Crusade when Constantinople is under attack. A Greek priest Niketas is rescued by a mysterious man named Baudolino who amazingly knows the languages of both attackers and defenders. While the two are in hiding, Baudolino tells Niketas his life story, from his peasant beginnings to his adoption by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick to his quest to discover the kingdom of the legendary priest Prestor John. Baudolino is a self-professed liar, so his story unfolds with the authority of his voice but also with underlying uncertainty. Baudolino believes with passion many of his own lies, lending yet another layer to his tale.
Parts of this novel are brilliant, but Eco does not seem to know what he wants this novel to be. For example, he spends a portion of the book documenting the rise of the Italian city-states, finally focusing on one city and its inhabitants with convincing detail and conflict, only to discard it - just when the situation gets interesting - in favor of a lackluster quest to return the Holy Grail to Prestor John's kingdom. The books covers events that occurred throughout Europe, and somehow (is it his liar's tongue?) Baudolino is always there with his hand stirring up history. Eco devotes huge sections to war, mythological beings, and long treatises on the theological questions of the times. He seems to want to cram everything he knows about the Middle Ages into this novel: myths, misconceptions, historical figures, theological debates, politics. Unfortunately, by not building his story around one or two of these elements, he has ended up with a scattered novel that can be compelling one minute and excruciatingly dull the next. The motivations of the characters are often weak, although sometimes the characters spring up with unexpected vividness, only to fade away once again. I wish Eco had spent more time with the human moments of the Middle Ages to give this era life.
Despite the unmoored aspect to BAUDOLINO, Eco is at his humorous best when inventing, with details that made me laugh, the origin of several Middle Ages "discoveries": the shroud of Turin, the widely circulated letters of Prestor John, the conflicting relics that appeared in various early churches, to name only a few. Several real figures of the times - Zosimos the alchemist, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick and his son, and Niketas himself - have human foibles that make them rise off the page. Baudolino's relationship with both his real and his adoptive fathers are poignant in two separate scenes, and his love for his stepmother is convincingly told.
This is a sinuously told tale with no constant conflict or other driving force, but one which will please readers who love philosophy, intellectual history, and theological debates. I recommend this for patient readers who have a bonafide interest in Eco's work as well as in medieval times. You will be wholly dissatisfied if you are looking for the mystery or conspiracy of Eco's previously successful novels.
43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Lie, the Fantasy, and Recorded History as Fact?,
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Expect the unexpected from Eco. Playful with words, concepts, and history, Eco will twist your conception of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, his court, the third and fourth Crusades, paradise on Earth, religious dogma, relics and their sources, till it becomes difficult to tell the real from the unreal. So much so that when two thirds into the book Eco changes from his variant of history to an out and out Cabellian fantasy, complete with unicorns and other less savory creatures, it comes across as merely another short step in the journey of his accomplished liar and linguist protagonist Baudolino.
And what a main character Baudolino is! For every major historical event, from Barbarossa's sieges and compromises with various Italian cities and popes to the discovery and placement of the Three Magi of Cologne, Baudolino is not only there, he is the major instigator. From the opening of the book, when we meet him as a young boy worming his way into Friedrich's graces with his quick wit and tongue, Baudolino is an engaging rascal, full of himself and his own (justified) ability to turn the course of history with a well crafted falsified parchment here, a poem (as presented as by someone else) there, or a quiet word with the Emperor carefully couched in just the language the Emperor wishes to hear.
But this also brings up one of Eco's major themes of this book, on just what is real and true. If people believe in it, does it matter that the relic worshiped as the Holy Grail is actually a common wooden bowl? If the lie will serve a greater good, is it really a lie? If someone, somewhere, declares that something exists, then does it really have an existence? Where is the line between fantasy and reality? Of course, at the same time that Eco is investigating these points, he is also rather savagely satirizing various religious beliefs and demonstrating the hilarity of the life and death dissension of various religious sects over incredibly tiny differences of interpretation of some element of dogma.
As usual, Eco is not an easy read. Besides his liberal sprinkling of Latin, German, and other languages throughout the text, the ideas and history he is presenting are not for the faint of heart or one totally ignorant of this period. Without at least some knowledge of this historical period and Catholic religious dogma, a good portion of what he is saying will be overlooked. A good dictionary should also be a constant companion while reading this, as he often uses some very uncommon words, and sometimes intends some of the lesser known meanings of other more common words.
There are some elements that don't totally work here. I felt his inclusion of a locked room murder mystery within the main body of the work was not really necessary from either a plot or character development standpoint, and plot elements that are linked to this could have easily been handled differently. This element almost seemed like it was tacked on as an expected thing for an Eco novel. The long fantasy section seemed to go on much too long, with rather tiresome long lists of the various creatures and their characteristics. Most of the characters other than Baudolino seem rather two-dimensional, and if they had been given some further rounding, I think Eco's satirical side could have been sharpened. None of these faults are really major, but they do detract somewhat from what is otherwise an outstanding novel.
Different, difficult, discerning, and ultimately deserving of an attentive read.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd...
43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Earthy and erudite,
Humorous and obscure, earthy and erudite, Eco's tale of a 12th century Italian peasant whose rise through the court of the Prussian Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, gives him a hand in most of the significant history of the time, delivers the intricate arguments, raucous personalities and mindbending paradoxes readers have come to expect.
The story opens during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Having saved the historian Niketas, Baudolino proceeds to tell him his story; a grand epic which stars Baudolino as poet, statesman, reluctant soldier, spy, lover, holy man, philosopher, and pilgrim to the mythical realm of Prester John. It encompasses the Crusades, the search for the holy grail, the mysteries of the East, the circular wrangling between pope and potentate, the petty, fluid and bloody rivalries of Italian cities and the state of science at the time.
But there's one caveat. The young Baudolino originally caught his patron's eye because of his two greatest talents - languages and lies. So what to believe?
The choice is yours and the journey is stimulating, although the drug-enhanced Paris student arguments on the great questions of the day begin to read like student arguments of any era, despite the wit. Baudolino is engaging, but as an untrustworthy narrator he maintains a certain distance from the reader. Eco's fans, dictionary in hand, will enjoy the play, but those who got bogged down in "The Name of the Rose" should skip this one.
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humourous, wonderful, entertaining,
By A Customer
I would not recommend this book to everyone. If you are not interested in the middle ages and have no background in their history, or if you are not interested in gnosticism - you would probably find this book confusing and having too much piled in.
However - for those who do have some background in the history - this is absolutely wonderful. I think this is Eco's best book so far - it is meticulously researched, it is humourous, it weaves together multiple themes (including love, philosophy, adventure) and it has his typical detective edge with a surprising ending.
I could not stop smiling for 2 days after I finished reading it.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent fantasy and historical fiction,
This review is from: Baudolino (Paperback)
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.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tangled Web,
Unlike other reviewers, I do not have a foundation of Eco, as this is my first attempt to read him. Some have said that this novel is far more accessible than his others. Having owned a copy of Island of the Day Before for 3 years now and never getting past page 4....I must confess that this novel pulled me in almost immediately; so much so that it took me only 5 days to finish it.
Baudolino is a 'retelling' , of sorts, of the history of Constantinople; of myths and fables surrounding the former city; of Emporer Frederik Barbarossa; of the Holy Grail; of the extinction of the mythical Unicorn, and so much more. Packaging so many different tales of wonder into one novel, Eco succeeds as keeping a focused, discernible narrative throughout, the life of Baudolino as witness, interpreter, and chronicler of all these events.
Adopted at an early age by the Emporer, Baudolino adapts easily to a more privileged life than that of a poor man's child. While not forgetting his heritage, Baudolino makes use of his new station and ventures to Paris to continue his studies. While there, he meets other youths who are to become life-long companions. The Poet, who apparently never writes a line of original verse, being on of the most prevalent and influential of his companions, and one of the most developed characters other than the narrator.
Baudolino returns to the court of the Emporer, having learned to craft fanciful and believable tales to delight and enthrall others, and making use of this skill so far as to set off on a quest to find the fabled 'Prestor John' and bring the Holy Grail to him. Neither, of course, are factual to this tale, but Baudolino does not let that deter him, or his companions, from their quest.
Following the death of the Emporer under questionable circumstances, Baudolino and company are flung into a further mission, to recover the 'Grail', which has disappeared, along with one of their traveling companions.
Here the book delves into mythical territory, as Baudolino and company encounter beings and creatures that only fantasy can create and sustain. But as most of Baudolino's life is wrapped up in fantasy that he has created, none of it seems anything but commonplace to him and his fellow travelers.
While I am not a fan of fantasy novels, this fits seamlessly into the story told, as in describing this type of journey into a 'fantasy' land, of course the details are made up and embellished to the best ability of the author of the story. Eco, through Baudolino's voice, creates a wonderous land of creatures, places, and events that let the imagination soar into lands that most leave behind with their childhoods. This story, while mostly invention, touches upon many factual themes, people, and events. It informs, enlightens, and best of all entertains with what could be a dry, turgid history lesson, no matter how colorful the history of Constantinople. The blending of actual history with myth, and the adept imagination of Eco, works on many levels.
I highly recommend this book as a starting point for those interested in reading Umberto Eco. While purportedly not as well-crafted as Focault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose (two more Eco novels that I will now have to investigate) it is a well-written and highly enjoyable foray into myth, fantasy, legend, and fact.
100 of 124 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Punch Drunk Reader,
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I finally staggered to the end of this one after about 200 rounds spread out over four months. I couldn't take more pronlonged sparring. Eco has developed the old "rope a dope" technique into too fine a science. He just stands there in the corner, letting you wail away on him until you've utterly exhausted yourself. By the time the bout was finally over, I realized that all my efforts had been in vain. He was still standing and I was defeated, having expended all that energy for nothing.
There was a time when I came away from an engagement with Eco feeling refreshed and fortified, grateful for the time I had invested in reading works such as NAME OF THE ROSE and FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM. Then came the journey down the literary vortex of torpor, THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE and now BAUDOLINO, and all I can say is "Oh how the mighty have fallen!"
I guess, in all fairness, Eco just raised his personal bar a bit too high with FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM. It is that rare commodity in literature, a hybrid combining pace and great story with enough philosophical digression thrown in to lend it heft.
The problem with Eco's last two books can be traced to one serious defect. The narrators in both books are tiresome; but particularly Baudolino, a pompous, unfunny, self-centered bore. I'm sure that as Eco was modelling him, he had in mind some clever, roguish, humorous figure who just happened to be present at some of the more important historical events in late Byzantine history. The problem is, no literary creation this self-inflated can come across as anything other than someone one would prefer not to be around. He's a lousy reconteur. The stories he tells are generally of the shaggy dog variety. The characters he introduces are uninterseting. His little attempts at moralizing are tedious.
At least you readers who decide to buy this book are luckier than I in one respect. You have the opportunity to buy the paperback version, whereas I shelled out the hardcover bucks, as I was so excited by the notion that this was going to be a return to form for former champion Eco. Unfortunately, it's about like watching Tyson fight these days. He "used to be" a contenda. 3 stars only because reading thrird rate Eco is still better than reading first rate John Grisham.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a thick hearty stew with a few choice pieces,
I have to admit, this is one was a bit of disappointment. I also have to admit that the disappointment probably has more to do with me than the author. As is his wont, Eco projects a lot of the ideas he presented in his various non-fictional work onto a fictional setting. Having read a lot of those works, a good deal of the novel was just regurgitating.
The book is enjoyable, even if some reader might find it difficult to get into. It is humorous, erudite, and full of fun tidbits. Style-wise this is probalby most similar to Eco's "Name of the Rose" -- his best known novel. However, I would still recommend any of his other fictional books over this one.
[More detail below]
Abundant in rich historical detail, Eco returns to some of his favourite themes -- Babel, Historical Hoaxes, Heresies, as well as his native city. The translation was excellent, as usual by William Weaver, but the story itself is by necessity long. I could not really find too many faults with any particular periods of protagonist's life the book covers, but somehow the narration was listless and aimless. Indeed, that could adequately describe many a life, and may have been intended as such, but does not make for the most exciting reading. We start at the end, chronologically, jump to the beginning, and work our way forward to the sacking of Constantinople. Eco seems to enjoy the trappings of each mini-era, of each place and time too much to move along. The overarching theme of Pr. Johannan is presented early, but does not really get going until the 2nd half of the book. As a reader I just did not feel in a hurry either. For whatever reason I could not find myself believing in the relationship between Barbarossa and Baudolino, and so a lot of motivation Baudolino has did not really work for me. It might well go better for you.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of the Holy Grail, Prester John, Unicorns, and More ...,
This is one of the great shaggy dog stories of all time. But, as the author is Umberto Eco, it means that a whole lot of other things are going on as well. Baudolino is a barely literate Northern Italian peasant who somehow a close friend of Frederick I Barbarossa, the 12th Century Holy Roman Emperor. He feels grateful to his emperor, and strives to take his leadership to the next level, by an embassy to the lost Christian realm of Prester John. As a suitable gift to the mythical ruler, Baudolino takes an old drinking cup of his father's and calls it the Holy Grail.
Frederick goes along with the whole scheme -- anything to escape those endless wars with the petty Northern Italian states -- and sets out to the East. History states that Frederick drowned while crossing a river enroute to the Third Crusade. Eco invents a classical locked-room mystery to account for the emperor's death, and late in the book provides a neat answer that also satisfies the historians.
The whole story is told to a Byzantine official whom Baudolino saves. While they escape the ravages of the Fourth Crusade with its sacking of Constantinople, Baudolino spins an incredible tale encompassing much of the medieval bestiary and then some. On one hand, he is the most incredible liar who never lived: His kingdom of Prester John is located in one of those eternally disgruntled Muslim states of Central Asia in which, if there were ever any unicorns, they were long served as shish-kebabs.
There is a story about Freud and a mythical patient who spins out a long story for the great psychologist. "That's very interesting," said Freud. When the patient admits that the whole story was bogus, the response was, "That's even more interesting!"
Baudolino IS the Middle Ages personified, except for the minor detail that he is not much of a believer in this age of faith. Where the old maps say, "there be dragons here," Baudolino shows you the dragons. Perhaps, a more true statement is that Baudolino is the Medieval Imagination personified. Bogus or not, he created worlds within worlds that are endlessly enthralling. Be prepared for a wild ride in what must be one of the best books written in the last ten years.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Niche Book, Inside Jokes,
This review is from: Baudolino (Paperback)
This book is sort of like Forrest Gump for medievalists: your narrator's bona fides are in serious question, but if he's telling the truth (whatever THAT means), the history of the European 12th century is more or less all about him.
For those in the know, all the great political movements and hoaxes are Baudolinorian: Prester John, the Grail literature, the Courtly Love lyrics, the Third and Fourth Crusades, the politics of Frederick Barbarossa, and on and on.
If you're not really in the know about the period, this won't be much fun unless you like Googling a great deal.
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Baudolino by Umberto Eco