It is April 1204, and Constantinople, the splendid capital of the Byzantine Empire, is being sacked and burned by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. Amid the carnage and confusion, one Baudolino saves a historian and high court official from certain death at the hands of the crusading warriors and proceeds to tell his own fantastical story.
Born a simple peasant in northern Italy, Baudolino has two major gifts-a talent for learning languages and a skill in telling lies. When still a boy he meets a foreign commander in the woods, charming him with his quick wit and lively mind. The commander-who proves to be Emperor Frederick Barbarossa-adopts Baudolino and sends him to the university in Paris, where he makes a number of fearless, adventurous friends.
Spurred on by myths and their own reveries, this merry band sets out in search of Prester John, a legendary priest-king said to rule over a vast kingdom in the East-a phantasmagorical land of strange creatures with eyes on their shoulders and mouths on their stomachs, of eunuchs, unicorns, and lovely maidens.
With dazzling digressions, outrageous tricks, extraordinary feeling, and vicarious reflections on our postmodern age, this is Eco the storyteller at his brilliant best.
In this now annual feature,PW takes a look at BEA's most talked-about books and weighs in to let readers know whether they measure up to the hopes and the hype.FictionBAUDOLINOUmberto Eco, trans. from the Italian by William Weaver. Harcourt, $27 (528p) In another grand mythical epic, Eco transports readers to the medieval Italy of The Name of the Rose (though almost two centuries earlier), where Frederick Barbarossa seeks to establish himself as the Holy Roman emperor. The story begins in 1204, as the Byzantium capital of Constantinople is sacked and Baudolino, the adoptive son of Frederick, recounts his life to Byzantine historian Niketas, whom he has just saved from the barbaric Latins. Unfolding amid religious conspiracy theories and mysticism, the narrative, which builds slowly, follows the life of Baudolino, an Italian peasant boy who fabricates stories he realizes people want to believe in. While studying in Paris, Baudolino meets several friends from all over the world, who together divulge their intimate dreams and share their desire to discover distant places. Two decades later, Baudolino calls together his friends to embark on what will be a lifelong journey to find Prester John, the Christian priest of the East, whose fabled reputation Baudolino has helped create. Eco seems to loosen the reins when the friends set out across unknown territories, where they grope through an eternally dark forest; traverse a river of stones and boulders; and encounter such mythical creatures as the sled-footed skiapods, dog-headed cynocephali and the Hypatia, beautiful sirens with the legs of goats. While the pilgrims are aware, to a certain extent, of Baudolino's truth-stretching, they all come to believe in their search, as does Baudolino himself. Eco builds his story upon light theological and historical debates, though fiction and history are more evenly balanced than in his previous book, The Island of the Day Before, making for a more engaging read. While this book lacks the suspense of The Name of the Rose, it is nevertheless a spirited story that might offer those previously daunted by his writing a more accessible entr e.