Vacation Reading #1 – Baudolino

I took Umberto Eco’s Baudolino to Seattle. The plot is like Woody Allen’s Zelig set in 12/13th century Italy and Constantinople. An Italian peasant boy with a gift for languages and colorful lies becomes the protege of Frederick Babarossa, and is the behind-the-scenes creator of grail legends, the canonization of Charlemagne, counterfeit relics, and the mysterious letter from the mythical Prester John, king of a fantastic Eastern Kingdom, promising political support for the Byzantine emperor.
What I liked: lively depiction of the historical period; the beauty and decadence of Constantinople (complete with detailed descriptions of Byzantine recipes, catacombs, and scupltures); the ribald life of Paris students; the crazily shifting politics of 12th c. Italy.
Where I lost patience:
* medieval disputation. The characters engage in long philosophical debates on the existence of a vacuum, the dimensions of Solomon’s temple, the shape of the earth, with creative logic and little evidence. Eco creates a set of characters with convincingly medieval concerns which lose the attention of this modern reader.
* kingdom of Prester John. The last third of the narrative tells the story of a pilgrimage beyond the River Sambatyon to the domain of Prester John, inhabited by unicorns, satyrs, giants, and a variety of other medieval monsters. At this point, the story veers off into allegory, shifting the balance between narrative and idea far enough (for me) to lose the human interest.
Not sure about: a theme of the novel is the relationship between history and fiction, truth and lies. I need to reflect more about the book to decide what I think about Eco’s treatment of the theme.

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