Published: Vintage 2003
Purchased: Borders, Cambridge, 2004-01-24, £7.99
Eco is most famous for The Name Of The Rose. An Italian writer, he's not a genre writer but rather one of those that mainstream critics adore, so it's interesting to see this novel with its distinctly fantastical elements, set during the latter half of the twelfth century and recounted by the eponymous hero.
The young Baudolino meets Holy Roman Emperor Frederick, better known historically as Barbarossa, and acts as his guide in Italy. Frederick takes to the young lad, and, giving a small fortune to his parents, effectively adopts him.
From there, the novel follows the historical line, but with a great humanising of the events. We see Frederick trying to cope with the incessantly quarrelling Italian city states and the fickleness of the Popes who were supposed to be the natural allies of the Emperors. We see the teenage Baudolino fall head over heels in love with Frederick's bride, Beatrice of Burgundy. We see Baudolino take himself off to Paris to study at University, and what life was like for students of the day. And we see Baudolino start to blur fact with fiction, as he begins to elaborate the legend of Prester John to the extent that he forges a letter to Frederick.
And then, in 1190, Frederick is apparently drowned crossing a river in Asia Minor during the Third Crusade, and the book changes course because here Frederick has actually suddenly died guesting at a keep, and Baudolino is convinced it is murder, but persuades the others he is with to fake the drowning to avoid trouble.
At this point, the small band set off to pursue the suspected murderer into the East. They think that he's attempting to get to the court of Prester John. Thereafter follow fabulous adventures, with almost all the strange creatures from mediaeval bestiaries turning up including the monopodes and the people who, being headless, have their faces on their chests. The next ten years or so - and the second half of the novel - happen, before Baudolino final returns to the West, arriving back near Constantinople on the back of a Roc to witness the fall of the city to the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
I have real problems with this book, and they stem from the unreliable narrator. Hell, we know he makes things up, but the problem is that it's told from his viewpoint, and the complete mismatch between the apparent historical fidelity of one half and the obviously fantastical falsity of the other just does not work. Either half would have been better in its own right, but something that butts these two styles against each other so crudely is doing so in order to make a point, not to tell a story. As it is, in the end we have to write the whole tale off because we know the narrator cannot be trusted.