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A liar's tale from the Middle Ages

Baudolino, A Novel, Umberto Eco, Translated from the Italian by William Weaver, Harcourt: 522 pp., $27

October 27, 2002|Iain Pears | Iain Pears is the author of, most recently, "The Dream of Scipio."

Many years ago, when I was a jobbing reporter for a news agency in Rome, we received a circular from a publisher inviting one of our number to go to Bologna to interview a professor of semiotics who had written a novel. It was a quiet period, but there was little enthusiasm for taking up the offer, despite Bologna's reputation as the culinary capital of Italy. A semiotician writing a novel, it was generally concluded, would be a bit like Samuel Johnson's dog walking on two legs: It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all. In my case, a trip to Naples seemed more promising, and the job of interviewing the author went to a reporter who usually occupied himself with the stock market reports.

Big mistake. Professor Umberto Eco's book, "The Name of the Rose," went on to become a worldwide publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies, more or less inventing the literary thriller, breathing new life into the much-maligned historical novel and convincing readers and publishers alike that even immensely abstruse and complex ideas were not necessarily an instant sentence of death for a work of fiction.

Revisiting the book two decades later, I find it is still a marvel. It's not without its faults, of course, but Eco somehow manages to pull off the alchemist's trick and transform what would have been glaring and possibly fatal flaws in any other book into major strengths. Certainly, he would be hammered in any creative writing course for the way he allows the narrative to stop dead for pages while he examines some obscure point of medieval theology of only tangential relevance, or inserts a conversation about classical philosophy (as understood in the 14th century), or lards the prose with Latin tags for which he declines to give any translation. The mastery lies in the fact that none of this matters; it even contributes greatly to the book's appeal: Readers become swept up in Eco's almost boyish enthusiasms, and they are prepared to indulge him his little ways because he is so clearly enjoying himself.

In the novels that followed, however, the faults stayed as faults: "Foucault's Pendulum," in particular, is an unwieldy beast, lacking the joie de vivre of "The Name of the Rose," with a style that tips over into the self-indulgent. The ideas and the story never mesh particularly well, and reading it is something of a chore. In his latest novel, however, Eco has fortunately recovered his sense of fun, and "Baudolino" manifests many of the exuberant extravagances that made "The Name of the Rose" so hugely enjoyable.

The novel is the story of Baudolino, an Italian of poor origin who is adopted by Frederick Barbarossa, the 12th century Holy Roman emperor. The tale is his life story as told to Niketas, a Byzantine nobleman whom Baudolino saves during the sack of Constantinople by forces from the West in 1204. He tells of wonderful things, in particular how he became a liar and discovered that the lies he told became true or better than true. Frederick needs a little bit of help to raise his prestige, so Baudolino discovers the corpses of the three Magi for him. He knows they are not the three Magi, but no matter: They become the bodies of the three Eastern kings in the Bible.

He goes to study in Paris, and he dreams with friends of Prester John, the legendary Christian king from the Far East, near the earthly paradise at the very edge of the world. He writes a letter from Prester John to Frederick, and the letter takes on a life of its own, almost bringing the kingdom into existence, so convincingly that Baudolino and friends set off to discover it. Other metamorphoses follow, for example, Baudolino's father's drinking cup, hewn from a root, becomes the Holy Grail. It takes on magical powers because Baudolino thinks the cup Christ drank from should be as simple as his father's, rather than something richly decorated with gold and jewels.

The book is a liar's tale, another contribution to the fibbers' chronicles that were probably already well-established as a genre when "The Odyssey" appeared and that have carried on more or less without a break to the memoirs of politicians today. Had it been done straight, the book could have become tedious, but throughout, Eco twists the braggart's narrative because not only is Baudolino a liar, he also knows he is a liar.

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