Thursday, August 5, 2010

Baudolino, A Review

I have read one other book by Umberto Eco and that is Foucault's Pendulum. I really enjoyed it. It was like an intelligent Da Vinci Code with all the proper facts and meticulously researched.
I have not read The Name of the Rose but I have seen the movie and thought it was very good too. It is on my mental 'to read someday' list.
I had high hopes for Baudolino. It began well. The first few pages that introduce the book and the character of Baudolinio were enchanting. He was a young rascal learning to write in Latin and trying to write his autobiography.
Then the story moves forward to his years as an adopted son of Frederick Barbarossa, through the disastrous Third Crusade and sack of Constantinople, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor's difficulties in bringing the Italian city states to heel, and Paris in the 12th century. Eco does 'period' very, very well but then the trip to find the legendary Prester John begins.
In English, the novel is 521 pages long. The trip to the East to find the priest/king begins around page 316 and for sixty pages, Baudolino and his group struggle through a landscape that is very reminiscent of Swift's Gulliver's Travels and is taken partly from Pliny and partly from the letter from Prester John to Manuel I Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor, and from Otto of Freising's chronicle as well as other sources. This trip to the East is said to have provided Wolfram von Eschenbach with some of the details of his Parzival.
Baudolino travelled East with Kyot, who was supposed to have given the story of the Grail to Wolfram. There are several other historical figures travelling with Baudolino like Zosimos, an Arab alchemist, Robert de Boron, and the Archpoet. You could skip over much of the travelling. It is like the camping trip that never ends in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - a big snore.
For another 80 pages, the travellers linger in the East getting to know the fabulous inhabitants and debating theology with them. That was like those long discussions of nihilism in Dostoyevsky - you can skip over much of that without missing anything related to the story. Of course, if you want to read more about gnosticism and other 'heresies', read on. Then there is the flight back to the West and the arrival at Constantinople in time to watch it burn and to meet Niketas Choniates and tell him the story. You could skim over almost 150 pages without missing much in my opinion. Otherwise, it was good; I enjoyed reading about the wars between Frederick and the Italians and the story of the Third Crusade. Eco can write an engaging story without having to tweak the facts and I like that most of the history in the novel is accurate. I say most because there is no Baudolino.
One thing to add - Eco translated the Latin for this novel which will make some people very happy.

8 comments:

anachronist said...

I read "The name of the rose" and it has been one of my favourite books ever since. I read "Foucault's Pendulum" and didn't enjoy it quite as much (but it was long time ago; perhaps I should reread it). I don't know whether I would like "Baudolino" or not. I mean I liked your review and the period the book is set in but some aspects of Eco's prose I simply don't get. Perhaps I am too lowbrow for his more subtle philosophy digressions.

The Red Witch said...

A little bit of philosophy in a story is fine but, when it goes on and on like this, it distracts from the story. You are not too lowbrow just skim over those pages and it is not so bad. (Somewhere out there Umberto Eco gasps in horror :-) )

anachronist said...

(Somewhere out there Umberto Eco gasps in horror :-) )

Lol, let him gasp, he should be pleased anybody reads his books!

Tracy said...

I'm halfway through it. I'm enjoying it so far, but decided it was too heavy to read on holiday last week. I love that Eco considers this book to be 'lowbrow' - according to an interview before it was published! (Probably because he'd translated the latin! For which, yes, I am grateful!)

I read The Name of the Rose many years ago, probably after I'd seen the movie. And you know I loved Foucault's Pendulum - but heavy philosophical discussion is what you expect from Eco.

The Red Witch said...

I expect history and some accuracy in how he shows a period in time but not such a long discussion on theological theories. It might be interesting to someone who has never heard of these 'heresies'.

Tracy said...

Well, when I eventually finish it I'll let you know how interesting I thought the 'heresies' discussion was. And if you've read The Name of the Rose, you'll know that Eco can discuss theological theories at great length!

Tracy said...

I've just finished this book - and re-reading your review, I actually enjoyed the description of the travelling to try and find Prester John! I found the last third of the book the most interesting, strangely. It certainly ties in with your earlier post about relics. And I liked the ending (so many books are let down by the ending) but I'll write a few more of my thoughts in my review.

The Red Witch said...

I enjoyed the description of the traveling but it really dragged on too long and I have to wonder if people in the Middle Ages were really so credulous as to believe in a river of stones. If so, how did Prester John cross it to get to the Tigris and then be unable to cross that?