Magical realism meets historical fiction: Baudolino by Umberto Eco

Book Review: Baudolino by Umberto Eco
Device: Paperback
Location: On the KTX from Daegu to Seoul and back (twice); Bus 405 to the gynaecologist’s office
Rating: Transcendental
When I was a student at Rhodes University I was often daunted by the idea of reading Umberto Eco. The great Italian writer, who died this year at the age of 84, often came up in my English and Afrikaans literature classes in our discussions on postmodernism and magical realism. Yet, it was only in my first year away from university, right here in the city of Daegu, that I read his award-winning novel The Name of the Rose.

A few years later, in a secondhand bookstore in Edenvale, Johannesburg, I found another book by Eco and on a whim, remembering how much I enjoyed The Name of the Rose, I shelled out the steep price of R40 and took it home. My copy has a soft, teal cover and smells of mothballs. When I packed my bags to return to Korea, I couldn’t leave Baudolino behind and today I finally finished this magnificent novel.

As an aside, Eco believed that read books are far less valuable that unread books. Read more about his concept of an antilibrary on Brain Pickings.

It took me over a month to finish Baudolino, and not only because of the 500 pages of intense adventure, conjecture and philosophical discussions. I didn’t want to finish it, like a steaming piece of fresh apple pie I wanted the taste of it to linger for as long as possible. When I finished it this morning, in between two loads of laundry and three cups of tea, tears came to my eyes and I was infinitely sad that our peregrination has come to an end.

At the end of the novel, one of Baudolino’s companions delivers the following parting words: “Not infrequently it has been beautiful to dream with you.” These words perfectly describe the way I feel every time I finish a book that altered my perception.

The hero of our story is Baudolino, a leonine old man who rescues a historian from the knights of the Fourth Crusade in the year 1204 in Constantinople. Baudolino has a burning desire to tell his life story to the historian in order to reach an understanding of his life’s meaning. He hints at having just killed a man who presumably killed his father, and he needs to recap the events of 60-odd years to see clearly the cause of effect of his actions.

From the outset, Baudolino confesses to being a liar and a forger of great holy relics and letters. Master Niketas is aware that the stories of monsters in faraway lands and Baudolino’s part in the resurrection of cities and influence on the course of history cannot possibly be true, yet for several weeks he is captivated by these tales.

The story starts in the swamps of rural Italy, where Baudolino is born and raised as a simple peasant lad. To his parents’ dismay, Baudolino displays a great gift for learning foreign languages and through a series of unfathomable events he becomes the adopted son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Fueled by his loyalty to the Emperor, Baudolino dedicates his entire life to finding the kingdom of Presbyter Johannes and a tale of wonder and mystery unfolds.

At the end, Niketas reflects to his friend: “It was a beautiful story. Too bad no one will find out about it.” To which his friend replies, “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.”

Baudolino, like The Name of the Rose, is one of those books I wish I could forget, just to read it again and again and again. The clever word play, intricate philosophical arguments and humorous subversion of historical facts had me, like Master Niketas, hanging on the narrator’s every word from start to end.


2 thoughts on “Magical realism meets historical fiction: Baudolino by Umberto Eco

  1. Pingback: Book review: Kafka of the Shore by Haruki Murakami | Reviews on a Train

  2. Pingback: Book review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami | Reviews on a Train

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