A whole lie is a half-truth


Attempting the memoirs of a self-confessed liar, from his own testimony alone, sounds like a fool's errand. But if that man's verbal fabrications had given birth to a city, a kingdom and the holy grail, then one might be inclined to treat them with respect. Besides, Baudolino's first act towards the Byzantine scholar Niketas Choniates was one of righteous Christian compassion during the sack of the city, and that in itself granted the Italian---pilgrim, fighter, peasant, tactician, most favoured of the late Holy Roman Emperor and slayer of his killer---weeks of audience with the fussy old Greek. Together they try to make sense of Baudolino's epic of mendacity, stacking and hammering fib against tall tale, to see what parts of it, if any, will support their own weight.

Eco himself has built on much of this territory before, several times and with variable success. The intricate, academic tomfoolery of Foucault's Pendulum imagined a suddenly real group of illuminati out of the interwoven fancies of three biblophiles; in doing so it brilliantly skewered every wannabe secret society and conspiracy theorist. Less successfully (insofar as a novel should be enjoyable) The Island of the Day Before chroncled travels of nautical and magical-realist compass, attempting to satirize literary hand-waving and intellectual shiftiness by comparison with his protagonist's shape-shifting world. And The Name of the Rose was a wordy, complex but ultimately rewarding evocation of the sights and smells of medieval Europe. With such fertile ground still arguably available to be measured and levelled for re-use, Eco might be excused for taking the premise of the first, the plot arc of the second, and the setting of the third; to construct like some hybridized Casaubo-bert-adso-dolino, a tall tale from these ruins and relics.

All the more reason to look favourably on Eco, to treat Baudolino as a grand autotextualization of his past work rather than merely a rehash, is that the novel is charming, funny and above all (given his past mistakes) readable: knockabout and bawdy yet erudite and deep, thoughtfully planned yet artfully clumsy in its layers of witty and sometimes affecting irony. Baudolino is a Blackadder of his time---just as clever, and just as stupid---and his chronicle, in a just world, would shrug off all attempts to label it as another clever-clever Eco work, and stand tall and proud among other period pseudobiographies such as Don Quixote or Tristram Shandy.

Eco clearly feels most at home at a certain point of Western scholarly development, and it's Baudolino's setting at this very juncture that gives it its power: Rose is set not long after, and Foucault's Pendulum arguably obtains much of its narrative and magical powers from dipping into the medieval melting-pot. For it's at this point in history when history itself is discovered, and scholars begin writing with one eye to posterity; yet, in the absence of any existing canon of chronicling (and therefore no guiding style) the result is an anarchic crashing-together of fiction, religious allegory, myth, mistakes, natural philosophy and genuine attempts at detached histories.

In this confusion Eco can easily insert Baudolino, son of the mythical saviour of Eco's birthplace; the young man and his college mates write the first letter "from" Prester John; their travels take them to lands inhabited by Nurembergian monsters such as skiapods and blemmyae; there are hints of inventions steampunked out of their own era; and Emperor Frederick's natural death becomes murder. Eco even lets a blind philosopher Paphnutius vaguely predict Eco himself, as a greater liar than Baudolino who will one day write the tale that (the onetime real person) Niketas is reluctant to transcribe. Eco is clearly in his element, and the playfulness of his prose in Baudolino suggests a whole new writer, or at any rate a new translator (not so, though: it's admirably rendered into English by William Weaver). One can only hope that, with The Island behind him, Eco acknowledges his own strengths and weaknesses, and continues to have such obvious fun while writing such subtle books.