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106 of 111 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Travelogue Through the Middle Ages, January 15, 2003
This review is from: Baudolino (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 14, 2011 9:28:36 AM PDT
If you liked this book, you should try this pastiche named ALLAN QUATERMAIN AT THE CRUCIBLE OF LIFE; OR, THE ADVENTURE OF THE ROSE OF FIRE Allan Quatermain at the Crucible of Life . There are some haunting touchpoints.
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Review Details



Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Location: the Lehigh Valley, PA

Top Reviewer Ranking: 61