10 March 2004

Eco Tourism

I've been reading Baudolino by Umberto Eco, the ridiculously (but deservedly) famous and respected author not only of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, but also of a pop-linguistics book which I'm very fond of, The Quest for the Perfect Language.

Baudolino is what we literature specialists call Bloody Long, and I've been reading it for a couple of weeks now. (I've found the rate at which I get through books has dipped shockingly in recent years, although I still diligently read all the time that's available to me. I guess that's what marriage, full-time jobs, spare-time writing and so on, do to a once-bibliomanic lifestyle.) Impressively, it hasn't palled a bit during that time, remaining fresh and entertaining. Admittedly it is keeping me from reading my current backlog of science fiction books.

Like The Name of the Rose, it's the kind of book only a seriously committed Medieval scholar could ever have even considered embarking on. The first two-thirds of the novel are concerned mainly with twelfth-century politics and court life in the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I or Barbarossa. It succeeds in making the various intrigues, sieges and conspiracies fascinating for two reasons: firstly the central character, Baudolino of Alessandria, a disreputable and bawdy liar who despite his deviousness acts at all times from high, almost naively idealistic motives; and secondly a deep immersion in Medieval thinking, which manifests itself in discussions of all kinds of metaphysical topics, from the topography of the Earth to the putative existence of vacuum.

The first half of the book establishes firmly the theme that, by lying with enough conviction to inspire belief, Baudolino can make things come to pass or exist which would otherwise not have. The last third of the book (which, bear in mind, I've not actually finished) takes this to absurd extremes, which remove the novel altogether from the realm of the historical novel and into that of the traveller's tale; although, in the seriousness with which it treats its mythical and/or pseudo-scientific subject matter, the last third might equally be considered in modern terms as fantasy or magic realism. I believe (although I can't find a citation) that the author has elsewhere referred to this process in literature as "transworld migration".

Early on, Baudolino and his friends have developed an obsession with the lands to the East, inhabited by monsters and by strange societies of humanity, and ruled over by the fabled Christian king and keeper of the Holy Grasal, Prester John. (Indeed, Baudolino ends up inventing many of the familiar myths about these things during the course of the novel.) In the last segment of the novel, they go there -- and find, to the east of the lands of the Turks, not Persia or India or China, but fabled lands like Abcasia, where perpetual darkness rules, and Pndapetzim, the threshold of Prester John's kingdom. Here they find various species of monstrous men, such as the one-legged skiapods and headless blemmyae described by Pliny, who -- in a bizarre but hilarious twist -- all follow various discredited Christian heresies, such as Messalianism and Patripassianism. The pairing of mutant humans with aberrant Trinitarian doctrines is the kind of stroke of genius only someone steeped in the Medieval mindset could possibly have come up with.

I'm looking forward to finishing this novel, and finding out (among other things) the solution to the locked-room mystery which Eco interpolates at the point of Barbarossa's death. But so far, it's really good fun. Indeed, in its intellectual exuberance, its insistence on dealing logially with even the most absurd of found concepts, and its relentless syncretsm, Baudolino is reminding me of nothing so much as Alan Moore's mould-breaking graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Those who have read the latter will probably agree that this is praise indeed.

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