Opening Passage: Most of the novel is accessibly written, but it begins with a palimpsest -- Eco being clever, and a little heavy-handed.
DomminiDomini mense decembri mclv Cronicle of Baudolin of the fammily of Aulario.
I Baudolino son of
GaliaudoGagliaudo of the Aulari with a head that ooks like a lion halleluia gratias to the Allmighty may he gorgive me
ego habeo facto the greatest stealing of my life, I mean from the cabinet of the Bishop Oto I have stollen many pages that may belong to the Immperial Chancellor and I have scraped clean almost all of them excepting where the writing would not come off et now I have much parchmint to write down what I want which is my own story even if I don't know how to write Latin. (p. 1)
Summary: Baudolino is in the genre of secret history, like the novels of Tim Powers. Baudolino of Alessandria, named after St. Baudolino of Alessandria, is a fictional character, and the novel is essentially his role in the actual factual events of the Third and Fourth Crusades. Thus he becomes an adopted son of the Emperor, Frederick Barabrossa and tells his story the Byzantine historian Niketas Chroniates during the Sack of Constantinople. He becomes good friends with the Archipoeta, who is the otherwise unknown author of a number of important Latin poems, and with Kyot, who is the otherwise unknown source to which Wolfram von Eschenbach attributes his knowledge of the Grail Quest, and with Robert de Boron, whose version of the Grail Quest became the dominant influence on most later versions of it. Thus the first root of the secret history is to posit that all of these very different people had some common factor. This on its own only gets you historical fiction; to have secret history you must have marvelous happenings in the interstices of the historical facts. This happens in two ways here. Emperor Frederick died suddenly and mysteriously in the midst of the Third Crusade. The reports of how he died are very conflicting, although he seems to have drowned. So here is a mystery susceptible of various interpretations, which is exactly the sort of thing, and Eco takes it further by turning it into a locked room mystery. And then the more fantastic happenings are drawn from the legends of the Grail (Grasal, as it is called here) and of the Kingdom of Prester John.
Secret history is a particularly enticing genre if you, like Eco, are interested in ambiguities when it comes to what we count as true or false. It is supposed to be historical fact, and, indeed, the usual expectation is that a secret history will take even fewer liberties with historical fact than historical fiction will. But historical facts are patchy and uncertain things. However good our research, only traces of the past remain. In ordinary historical fiction, you fill this in by historical plausibilities or (if we are honest, more oftenly) analogies from modern life. But secret history is a fantastic genre; it doesn't have to be fantasy in the strict sense, but whereas in ordinary historical fiction you are taking on the challenge of making the historical events plausible enough to imagine, in secret history you are not. Instead, the challenge is to fill the gaps with something shocking, startling, or surprising, something that is indeed entirely implausible on its own, and yet connect it to the historical facts in such a way that it begins to look plausible in light of them. In secret history the implausible borrows plausibility first by taking up the facts in a coherent narrative and second by 'clearing up' mysteries that cannot be solved just from the facts, and (if they are well chosen) that you cannot honestly solve from ordinary plausibilities. One of the things Tim Powers does, for instance, is that he looks for surprising coincidences that cannot be given a rational explanation because the most likely theory is that they are, in fact, just coincidences; and then he weaves a story in which they are not just coincidences, but are connected. And no matter how strange the story is, there is something satisfying about reducing coincidences to regular order. That's the charm of secret history: taking things you know to be coincidences and asking, "But suppose they weren't?", taking things that aren't related and saying, "But if we told this story about them, they could be."
As you would expect, Eco is extraordinarily good at playing on the ambiguities that secret history provides. He oscillates at an astounding speed from well-established historical fact to historical speculation to things that are probably not true but aren't ruled out by the evidence to implausible-sounding interpretations of things that are probably true to things that are definitely not true but are plausible to things that are purely fantastic. He plays very well with showing that the difference between the historian and the writer of secret history is largely that the latter is infinitely more bold; all historians have to speculate, fill in gaps, hypothesize, and all historians have their biases and peculiarities of interpretation. They may not be brazen liars like Baudolino, but what honesty they have does not come from doing something entirely different from what he does. Baudolino is a brilliant work. To compare it to the other secret history I've done for the fortnightly book, I would say it is much more brilliant than Tim Powers's Declare.
But here's the thing. Declare is an entirely successful secret history and Baudolino is not -- indeed, I think it is definitely a failure. Since the book is so brilliant, and the writing so good, it's difficult to pin down what prevents it from working, but I think there are two things.
First, Eco is not really committed to the secret history as secret history, but instead as a way to explore ambiguity of true and false when we are dealing with history. There are so many ways the history of the period could have been drawn into the story, but except for a few portions -- like the founding and saving of Alessandria, which no doubt works because Eco, who is a native of Alessandria, is invested in it -- he passes it all up. The history is not sufficiently integrated; it serves mostly as a frame. One sees this as well with the historical characters, who are mostly just pieces on Eco's board. The Empress and Emperor do sometimes stand out a bit, and Niketas as well (although Eco gives him relatively little to do), but only a bit.
The second problem, even more serious, is that Eco is trying to do far too much here. It is a locked room mystery, a Grail Quest, a quest for Prester John, an account of the Holy Roman Empire in Italy, an account of the fall of Constantinople, and more. The locked room mystery, which plot-wise is the central pillar, is heavily shortchanged. This is a great disappointment, because it was in some ways best part of the book, and since it is structurally so important, you could imagine an excellent book devoted to it. But while the build-up to Frederick's death is good, we then get a pause while everyone goes questing, and only then, much later, do we get the second layer of puzzle to it -- there are three different mutually exclusive confessions and a fourth possibility as well -- and the actual solution is found remarkably quickly. It all feels imbalanced because of the need to fit the two Quests into the the story. Probably what he should have done is stuck with the locked room and, if he really wanted to play around with ambiguities in truth, confined himself to the multiple confessions and perhaps the relic forgery subplot that threads throughout the whole book.
The interlinked Quests, however, are not merely culprits, because they suffer, too. There is about a hundred pages in the midst of the book where I had no idea when reading it what the point was, and having finished the book, I still don't really know -- something to do with the multiplication of error, I'm guessing. All throughout there is big build-up to things that don't happen, or, if they do happen, happen quickly and without full closure. I suppose this is deliberate, since by the end of the book, the Prester John part of the quest is still not completed, but it doesn't work. It's not that it was uninteresting, because there were many interesting episodes and one or two of the best characters in the book (Gavagai, in particular); it's just that it was unsatisfying, and felt more like an interlude than an integral part of the story.
Perhaps she said it with her usual sisterly solicitude, perhaps she wanted only to animate the conversation, but for Baudolino anything Beatrice said was at once balm and toxin. With trembling hands, he drew from his bosom his letters to her and hers to him and, holding them out to her murmured: "No. I have written, and very often, and you, my Lady, have answered me."
Beatrice did not understand. She took the pages, began to read them in a low voice in order better to decipher that double calligraphy. Baudolino, two paces form her, wrung his hands, sweating, told himself he was mad, that she would send him away, calling her guards. He wished he had a weapon to plunge into his heart. Beatrice continued reading, and her cheeks grew increasingly flushed, her voice trembled as she spelled out those inflamed words, as if she were celebrating a blasphemous Mass. Se stood up, once, twice she seemed to sway. Twice she waved off Baudolino, who had risen to support her. Then in a faint voice she said only: "Oh child, child, what have you done?" (pp. 104-105)
Recommendation: Recommended; it's interesting, and very enjoyable in parts, although far from Eco's best.
Umberto Eco, Baudolino, Weaver, tr., Vintage (London: 2003).