An adventurer who boasts of his proficiency as a liar unburdens his colorful history to a skeptical Greek historian during the siege of Constantinople in a.d. 1204: in this erudite and intermittently sluggish fourth novel from the philosopher-semiotician author (Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989, etc.).
The eponymous Baudolino, a resourceful cross between Voltaire’s Candide and Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man,” is a lively enough narrator who regales his exhausted hearer (one Niketas Choniates) with the story of Baudolino’s agreeably misspent youth, his accidental meeting with warlord emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and the remarkable events that ensue when Frederick effectively adopts the clever stripling (possessed of “the gift of tongues”) and sends him to study in Paris. Bonding with several fellow students (including a moony would-be “Poet,” a love-starved half-Moor, and a pragmatic rabbinical scholar), Baudolino thereafter undertakes to compose a history of his benefactor’s exploits, helps defend a defiant city created to withstand Frederick’s anticipated sacking of it, and conceives a plan to locate the legendary Holy “Grasal” (a.k.a. “Grail”) and make it an offering from Barbarossa to the even more legendary Prester John, the fabulously wealthy Christian King of the Orient whose “sovereignty extended over the Three Indias . . . reach . . . [ing] the most remote deserts, as far as the tower of Babel.” None of this is nearly as much fun as it sounds, particularly since action is kept to a minimum while Eco permits his characters to engage in lengthy philosophical conversations—the least defensible being Baudolino’s Platonic dissection of the phenomenon of love with the beautiful half-woman, half-unicorn (Hypatia) who steals his heart. The wily cupiditous monk Zosimos, whose “necromancy” complicates our hero’s efforts, has a few good moments, and there are such incidental pleasures as the glimpse of Paradise reported by Baudolino’s dying father Gagliaudo (“It’s just like our stable, only all cleaned up”).
A little learning, reputedly a dangerous thing, can be lethal when allowed to overpower a story as relentlessly as it does in Baudolino.