Book Review: Baudolino (by Umberto Eco)
By Karen on Monday 14 September 2009, 03:28 - Permalink
It used to be said that the musical A Chorus Line was really meant for people who had already seen a lot of musicals; people who have never set foot in the theater before would be better off with Les Mis. I get the same feeling from Umberto Eco's novels, because while I think they're fantastic, I also think they're really meant for people who read novels all day long. If you're not a regular reader (and a novel-reader in particular), I would generally recommend something else- although, in this context, NOT Les Mis (I mean no disrespect to Hugo, but that's just not the book that's going to hook a reluctant reader into the world of literary delights.)
One of the comments I've gotten frequently about Sterling is that you really can't tell from the beginning what genre it is. In fact, two chapters into it you still really can't tell. I'm not a snob about genre fiction; I read plenty of books with elaborate, colorful pictures on the spine. However, sometimes I think announcing the genre up front is letting the cat out of the bag too early. We already know that the book we are about to read takes place in some sort of alternate reality-- it may be a reality very similar to ours, where the laws of physics remain intact, or it could be a reality where you don't know that you've jumped down the rabbit hole until you're halfway to the center of the earth. Why give that sort of thing away up front?
Eco seems to like constructing rabbit holes that have some sort of invisible force-field about halfway down; you can never confirm whether you're in a fantasy world or not. The titular Baudolino dictates a tale that's equal parts historical fact and medieval legend, and while the book has such a strange air of authenticity to it you can almost believe that centaurs did roam the middle east in the 1100s, we are assured - frequently - that Baudolino is a huge liar. If you're willing to label everything fantastical in the book as an exaggeration by Baudolino (and it makes perfect sense to do so), the book can be taken as solid historical fiction. However, passages like Baudolino's courtship of Hypathia, a fairy-like creature who should be merely whimsical, yet somehow becomes a vibrant woman that we can relate to, make us wish that the entire story were real. We don't really believe Baudolino, but I think the message of the book has something to do with how much we want to.
As historical fiction, Baudolino features plenty of sacks, murders, rapes, etc., but somehow I didn't find these sorts of details as off-putting as I did in Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth, a far more 'serious' historical novel. While Eco's characters feel like creatures of their times (who deal with hardships regularly and have developed an iron-tough skin), Follet's characters seemed to me to be 21st-century personalities shoehorned into historical characters awkwardly. The intent with Pillars was apparently to make you feel like you, personally, were present at the sack/murder/rape/torture, and while the book is admittedly compelling, it's compelling like a 20 car pile-up on the freeway. If anything, Baudolino is the more graphic of the two books, but it's actually the more pleasant read.
I purchased my copy at The Strand books in Manhattan; I haven't seen copies of it floating around in regular bookstores, so it may be somewhat hard to find. Whether this title is worth the time to both hunt down and read when you could be reading Foucalt's Pendulum and/or The Name of the Rose by the same author, I couldn't say; I haven't gotten around to either of those yet. I can tell you though that Eco's books are steadily moving up on my reading list.