Friday, 6 January 2017

Baudolino by Umberto Eco

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People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Ben

In that curiously relaxing time between Christmas and New Year's, when there's not much to do except sit around and read (if you're lucky enough to work somewhere that shuts down between the two), I picked up Baudolino. It was one of the pile of books I plowed my way through while visiting my in-laws. I hadn't had that much concentrated reading time in quite a while. Gosh, it was nice!

Baudolino, in particular, was a very enjoyable way to spend my reading time. It frequently made me grin with the medieval excesses of Baudolino and his compatriots. I described it to my mother-in-law as a romp, but while it is certainly that, it is also an intelligent and incisive look at legends and myths, stories that justify power and how they can be manipulated, and how even those who are creating the stories can come to believe in them.

And, of course, we get the preparation for and an expedition to the Kingdom of Prester John, a fine and fascinating medieval legend. Having visited already (in a fictional way) through Catherynne Valente's Habitation of the Blessed, it was extremely enjoyable to see another author's take on the same elements, the same fantastical creatures.

There's one section I loved a lot, where on the outskirts of Prester John's kingdom, surrounded by fabulous creatures, where Baudolino tries to tell the son of Prester John about the quite usual animals that exist in the world as Baudolino knows it, and from the words alone, no pictures, one can see how they might be confabulated to be just as fantastic as the blemmyae or satyrs or any of the other creatures we dismiss as the medieval imagination not knowing the difference between fiction and fact.

It is also the story of Baudolino's surrogate father, Frederick Barbarossa, and the struggles between Frederick and the Catholic Church, the other European leaders, and the smaller villages that still might be rebellious, for all that they're populated by ordinary people. In the midst of a few anti-popes, Frederick looks for divine proof that he should have supremacy over the church, and from this Baudolino creates reality by creating fiction, both in how he helps Frederick solve the siege of a city and in giving metaphorical support for his kingship from Prester John.

Baudolino gathers around him a group of friends, notable in its diversity - Eco has less trouble with the idea that there was diversity in the medieval world than many a fantasy author, possibly because he knows a bit more about it.  Many are in love with the idea of Prester John and help Baudolino craft a letter from Prester John to Frederick, even as they come to believe in what they're writing must be true because they want so badly for it to be true.

Introduce the Holy Grail in there, and it gets even more complicated and delightful. As a trip through medieval thought, legend, science, and politics, Baudolino is rich, and on the level of pure story, it's so much fun. I am sometimes intimidated by the idea of Umberto Eco, but not so much by his actual books.

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