By Umberto Eco.
Translated from the by William Weaver.
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2000
ISBN # 0-15-602906-5
521 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
September 2010

It is 1204 and Constantinople is being sacked by the Christians and the Byzantium empire is on the ropes, in its dying days. A high official and historian of Byzantium is caught out on the street in a dangerous situation and saved by 60 year old Baudolino, a Christian (so to speak) from Italy.

The two manage to get away from the surging crowds and danger and Niketas, the easterner, takes Baudolino, the European, out of the city to safe haven. While there, riding out the sack of Constantinople, Baudolino tells the incredible story of his life. That the story is “incredible” is not my judgment, rather it is Baudolino himself who tells Niketas over and over that he is a liar, but this is his story, lies and all.

What follows is a marvelous view of the history of the period from about 1150 to 1204 as seen by a participant liar. Perhaps the most amusing lie is the pattern of Baudolino’s life. A startlingly large number of the major events of the day were set into motion by Baudolino, according to his account. From his 16th year he was a very close friend and advisor to Frederick the Great, (Barbarossa), in love with Frederick’s young wife and has a fleeting sexual relationship with her. He is the cause of Charlemagne being made a saint and for several priests having been made bishops who later became historically famous, while he himself was a friend and confident of a famous bishop and on and on and on.

However, the lies are not just Baudolino’s lies about himself. Eco also examines the whole notion of truth in history. A major theme of the novel concerns the authenticity of holy relics of the Christian church. Baudolino and friends routinely earn money by creating fake relics, and Eco gives us the picture that these guys were small fries in creating such fake relics.

The theme of lies and history goes even deeper to questions such as should historians not tell necessary “small” historical lies in order to achieve proper feelings in the “modern” time.

This theme goes all the way to the very last two pages of the novel. By that time Baudolino is dead and Niketas is talking to a learned thinker, telling him he has to write Baudolino’s story (this novel), but he doesn’t really know how to go about it. The lying theme comes up and in the last two lines of the novel, Eco himself, in a little quiet joke, becomes Niketas and this novel is his “lying” history.

In the very end Niketas, a writer of history, has to decide what to do with the story Baudolino has told him. He doesn’t quite know what to do and seeks advice from a scholar.

“. . . I am a writer of histories. Sooner or later I will have to set myself to putting down the record of the last days of Byzantium. Where will I put the story that Baudolino told me?

“Nowhere. The story is all his. And anyway, are you sure it is true?

“No. Everything I know I have learned from him, as from him I learned that he was a liar. . . .

Niketas continues defending the need to tell this story:

“But at least during the last days we had a story in common, in the house of the Genoese.

“Strike also the Genoese; otherwise you’d have to tell about the relics they fabricated, and your readers would lose faith in the most sacred things. It won’t cost you much to alter events slightly; you will say you were helped by some Venetians. Yes, I know, it’s not the truth, but in a great history little truths can be altered so that the greater truth emerges. You must tell the true story of the empire of the Romans, not a little adventure that was born in a far-off swamp, in barbarian lands, among barbarian people. And further, would you like to put into the heads of your future readers the notion that a Grasal [cup that Christ used at the last supper] exists, up there amid the snow and ice, and the kingdom of Prester John in the remote lands? Who knows how many lunatics would start wandering endlessly, for centuries and centuries?

And the novel ends with the last exchange between Niketas and the scholar: Niketas complains and Umberto Eco inserts another little joke with himself as the butt:

“It was a beautiful story. Too bad no one will find out about it.

“You surely don’t believe you’re the only writer of stories in this world. Sooner or later, someone, a greater liar than Baudolino – will tell it.”

The novel is extremely powerful in raising the questions of what is true and what not in history and in our views of the past. It suggests we can’t always trust historians, and certainly not always trust verbal reports of what has happened in the past.

Baudolino is unusual in that he is honest about his lying! What a crazy notion.

“ . . . the problem of my life is that I’ve always confused what I saw with what I wanted to see.”

The theme of lying takes many forms. One very complex example is of the poetry Baudolino writes. He wrote poems to his great love in life, Frederick’s wife, but he never sent them. Then he wrote REPLIES she supposed wrote to him about the poems, and even does so in a hand writing that is what he imagined hers would be like.

Eventually he has a friend, The Poet, who is actually a horrible poet, but by lies Baudolino gets him a job with a bishop as poet in residence and Baudolino writes all his poetry for him.

Thus the lies in these two cases are of a different sort. The first is a sort of pretend correspondence which never happened, and in the second, what is a lie is simply the authorship of the poems themselves.

Another marvelous twist on the theme of truth is that Baudolino once makes up some titles of scholarly sounding books by well-know people and recommends them to a friend who is living in a monastery with a good library. Of course the books can’t be found, so the librarians are blamed for not having them. Baudolino is certain that the librarians, to get out of the mess, would WRITE them and they would then enter the canon of literature. Thus he raises the whole question of the reliability of claimed authorship of famous literary, theological and scientific texts.

Eco just plays with many forms of the lie, especially the lie in recorded history.

There is an ironic twist on the effect of such lies.

“There is nothing better than imaging other worlds,” he said, “to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.”

Thus lies and even dreaming fantastic worlds end up changing the world of the future.

In the future world, what is a successful lie may become “real” in many ways because they are believed. There is an interesting discussion of the fake relics that is such a huge theme in the novel:

[Baudolino] “But does a relic to be true, have to date to the saint or to the event of which it was a part?”

[Niketas] “No, of course not. Many relics that are preserved here in Constantinople are of very suspect origin, but the worshipers who kiss them perceive supernatural aromas wafting from them. It is faith that makes them true, not they who make faith true.”

Frederick himself, to whom Baudolino lies all the time, knows he is a liar, but his lies are positively useful, so Frederick doesn’t care.

“On the contrary. You will lie to me, but you won’t do me any harm either. You will lie and I’ll pretend to believe you because you always lie for good ends.”

At one point, after Frederick has already told us he knows Baudolino is a liar, Baudolino tells his the boldest of lies. There is a “Grasal” (seemingly the chalice Jesus used at the last supper, and of course, Baudolino has the “original”) Baudolino has this crazy fascination with the story that Prester John lives in the east in some fabulous kingdom and wants Frederick to finance a trip there, where Baudolino will present Prester John with the Grasal as a gift from Frederick. He gets his funding. But, Niketas interrupts Baudolino’s tale:

[Niketas] “You were lying to your father [Frederick].”

[Baudolino] “I was acting for his good, and good of the empire.”

[Niketas] “You didn’t ask yourself what would happen if Frederick really reached the Priest, handed him the Grasal, and the Priest widened his eyes, wondering what this bowl was that he had never seen before? Frederick would have become not the glory but the laughingstock of Christendom”

[Baudolino] “Master Niketas, you know men better than I. Imagine: you are Prester John, a great emperor of the West kneels at your feet, and hands you such a relic, saying it is rightfully yours, and you start snickering and saying you’ve never seen that tavern bowl before? Come not! I’m not saying the Priest would have pretended to recognize it. I’m saying that, dazzled by the glory that would fall on him, its acknowledge custodian, he would have recognized it at once, believing he had always possessed it.”

This raises the question of: what if a lie has a “positive” outcome, does that justify the lie? But it’s so complex. What is a positive outcome for one may well not be a positive outcome for another. And what is the difference between the FACT of truth and the UTILITY of truth? Difficult questions.

The novel is a wonderful read. Fantastic characters, totally incredible stories of fabulous beings who are mythical, funny, gripping, beautifully written and intellectually challenging. And I almost put it down after the first chapter!

The first chapter was supposedly written by Baudolino when he was about 15. He was just learning to write, couldn’t spell, was expressing himself in a crazy mix of Latin, English, French, Italian and made up words and grammar. It was nearly unintelligible.

I had already read two novels of Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, many years ago and even led a university course around that novel, and more recently I read his The Island of the Day Before. In both cases I was fascinated by the brilliant writing. So, when finally getting to the end of this first chapter, just 10 pages, I was thinking – oh wow. Okay, I struggled though, I have a fairly good idea what was said, but good grief, the novel is more than 400 pages. Can I struggle through this gibberish for that long? Will it be worth it and so on. I took a look at page 11, first page of chapter 2, and was deeply relieved to see that Baudolino is now older, has learned to write in normal language and the brilliance of Umberto Eco’s style was back. But that first chapter certainly set me on edge.

The book is a wonderful read. I would recommend it for all.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett