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Umberto Eco
Harcourt, 522 pages

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria, Italy. He received a doctoral degree from the University of Turin in 1954 at the age of 22. His thesis dealt the early philosopher and religious thinker St. Thomas Aquinas. From 1954 to 1959, he worked in Milan as a cultural editor for RAI, Italian Radio-Television, also lecturing at the University of Turin (1956-64). In 1958-59, he served in the army. He was an university teacher in Milan (1964-65) and Florence (1965-69). From 1969 to 1971, he was a teacher at Milan Polytechnic. At the age of 39, Umberto Eco was appointed professor of semiotics at Bologna University in the north of Italy.

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A review by William Thompson

In certain respects, this is one of those rare novels whose contents can be predicted to a degree by its cover. A detail from della Francesca's fresco, "The Battle of Chosroes," the dust cover depicts a processional view in which four figures dominate: an anonymous and fully armored knight with basinet closed; a priest-like figure blowing upon a horn; a bearded, swart-skinned warrior wearing a scull adorned in Oriental design; and a second soldier, features obscured, carrying a pole arm upraised. Overhead, the scene is fractured by blades and spears. While the fresco's original allegorical intention is perhaps lost in the book cover's fragmentary appropriation, it captures in part the odd admixture of spirituality, ritual pomp, superstition, and martial character that made up the medieval mindset, and which plays a significant role within this novel. And, in certain other, maybe unintended respects -- the sense of parade and pageantry, features disguised and hidden, distinct yet collectively joined figures, and its restive yet static portrait -- the artwork chosen for this cover anticipates the reader's experience.

Returning to the medieval setting of his first novel, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco abandons the abstracted and at times unnecessarily dense, abstruse and convoluted intellectual investigations of Foucault's Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, turning in his most broadly accessible work to date. Based upon the peregrinations and episodic adventures of his title character, Baudolino continues some of the author's earlier explorations into the nature and reliability of language both to record as well as to express experience, and the inherent limitations words impose upon perception. In particular, Eco's study of semiotics is directed here towards history, secular and religious, and the primary sources that have informed and influenced our knowledge of the period in which the novel takes place. Elements of historical fable and fantasy freely intermingle with reputed factual events whose mutual veracity is further complicated by a narrator whose reliability is immediately called into question, as well as filtered through the suspicions and views of a second party to whom the story is told. As the protagonist, Baudolino, admits early on in the book: "...the problem of my life is that I've always confused what I saw with what I wanted to see." And yet, as he also perceives, "when you say something you've imagined, and others then say that's exactly how it is, you end up believing it yourself." Later in the novel, in directing Baudolino toward what will become his future life's mission, his mentor, Bishop Otto of Freising, historian of the noted 12th century Chronica, counsels: "...I am not asking you to bear witness to what you believe is false, which would be a sin, but to testify falsely to what you believe is true..." Little question that throughout the novel, the distinction between what is perceived as truth and fiction is constantly being called into question, both narratively and by extension.

Set within the backdrop of Frederick Barbarossa's interminable wars with Italy's contentious city-states, as well as the abortive Third and Fourth Crusades, the story follows the life of a peasant boy taken in by the Emperor. A lad with an uncanny facility for tongues, as well as a local reputation for encountering unicorns and conversing with saints, Frederick initially takes Baudolino into his own household to spread the word that one of the saints has foretold that Frederick will succeed in an ongoing siege. Frederick takes an immediate liking to the boy and decides to adopt him. Baudolino's native intelligence and ability with languages, as well as his periodic and auspicious auguries, endear him to the Emperor, and he is brought up as a noble among Frederick's court. Not particularly well-disposed to warfare, Frederick, at the advice of Otto, sends Baudolino to Paris for study. There he will form a close coterie of friends whose singular and shared obsession will become the fabled kingdom of Presbyter John. In the end, as much a construction of their own imaginations and desires as evidence present in stories common for the period, they convince not only themselves of its existence, but the Holy Roman Emperor as well, and locating the legendary realm becomes but another objective in Frederick's participation in the Third Crusade. Following the Emperor's untimely and mysterious death in Cilicia, Baudolino and his friends abandon what is left Frederick's army, setting off into unknown lands in the direction in which Prester John is rumored to dwell. Their fourteen year sojourn will take them to strange and fabulous settings right out of a medieval bestiary. Their return will coincide with the fall of Constantinople.

Rich in historical anecdote as well as the folklore and myth of the period, this novel's premise, in the proven and talented hands of Eco, seems a guarantee of certain narrative success, an assurance of accomplishment. Eco has already shown his consummate skills with a historical novel set within a similar period, as well as his masterful ability to cross genres. And his medieval scholarship is well recognized and self-evident. Unfortunately, however, as was hinted at earlier, his most recent work fails to come fully together, the sum of its parts never equating a whole. Instead, the focus of the narrative appears to wander, flitting between events and metaphor, history and confabulation, without once forming a cohesive perspective, more kaleidoscopic than unified in its vision. In part the compositional structure chosen contributes to this: a story told to another, recounted almost chapter by chapter by a narrative return to the fictional present, in which the reader is constantly being reminded that the story is not so much unfolding as being told, intentionally or otherwise inserting a distance of what in effect become asides between the narrative and the act of reading which does not entirely well serve the story. Combined with the wide breadth of years being covered, as well as the disparate locales and events being described -- the very episodic nature of the novel's construction -- the results become more fragmented and static than flowing, certain sections of the narrative seeming to stand apart from the others, even though linked through the artifice of chronology or biography. Thus the author's hand, through the narrator, becomes far too evident for the reader to become fully engaged with the story, and even the use of metaphor and symbolism, as in the parodies of the nature of the Trinity, or the play upon language early in the book, become isolated, visited briefly only to be ignored elsewhere within the novel.

The end result, like the images in the cover art, is a parade of events, images and ideas that, more often than not, once passed on the pages, are rarely returned or later attended to, at least in any fashion that can be defined as other than episodic. Instead the narrative restlessly shifts back and forth between characters and events, time and place, wearying the reader in the process, starting and stalling, only to become ironically inanimate in impression overall. More account than narrative, this novel, though offering many momentary pleasures and points of interest, fails to create any lasting or satisfying impression. Though it may truthfully be said that in this regard it mirrors many of the historical and medieval sources after which it may have been patterned, Baudolino also contains many of their stilted and artificial imperfections of composition, even if not in language or ideation. Whether due to too much scholarly immersion within these same sources, or a desire to intentionally in part represent them, as a storytelling device such obvious and intrusive artifice is best left in the past. Neither as a resurrection of narrative form, nor as an expression of postmodern retrofitting does this compositional approach ultimately succeed. But more than anything, this novel suffers from a peripatetic focus and a diffusion of its themes and interests amidst the division and interleaving of its plot. And this is truly to be regretted, for on its surface this book appears to offer a greater potential for wide appreciation than any of his previous novels.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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