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en eo

Baudolino (U. Eco)

2003-10-04 3 min read Books marco

Yet another Umberto Eco novel that plays in the Middle Ages. This one has the advantage of touching one of my dearest subjects in history, the fall of Byzantium, but otherwise, well…
This is the story of Baudolino, a character that makes it from the humbles upbringing to becoming adoptive son to the greatest of all German emperors, Frederick Barbarossa (“red-beard’). Frederick needs to go on a crusade, so Baudolino does. But Baudolino has the added mission to discover the Holy Grail.
Eco has always been very fond of the closeness of truth and invention. In his first novel, “The Name of the Rose”, the classical whodunit tale spins in a medieval convent, where everybody lies to advance themselves in some way. The plot is master, and the development of characters and ambiance suffers.
His second novel, “Foucault’s Pendulum”, was much more of my liking, although it didn’t reach the same success that its predecessor accomplished. I liked it so much, indeed, that I completed a translation into Esperanto, soon killed by malevolent colleagues.
His third novel, “The Island of the Day Before”, fared even worse. I bought it in Italy, but was so bored by the premise that I never read it to the end. And I had given up on Eco for good.
Now, Baudolino. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the main characters (if there are such) invent a history and by doing so modify the present. They decide to guise a plot that ties the Templars with the Rosicrucians, and thence to the present. And although the plot is made up, the consequences are real.
In Baudolino, the making up is integral part of the story, and it is unclear at all times what is true and what isn’t. The narrator doesn’t know, we don’t know, and the book doesn’t know. It was indeed fascinating to be swayed on this long journey of discovery.
Yet, somehow the book ends up being flat. It doesn’t reveal anything but the fact that people lie, and that’s not a revelation that is good enough to carry 300 pages. And the more crazy the assertions go, the less we are going to believe them. Baudolino ends up in the land of monsters? Sure enough, it’s just a novel.
If the book were not just a mere continuation of the other novels, it is made even worse by the translation. William Weaver is really unimaginative when it comes to Italian, and he is not willing to follow the switch from vernacular to high Italian in the original. Some of the characters will speak their dialect throughout the book, but the translation reveals that only in odd phrases.
There is a reference to something being not more important than a dry fig. Funny expression, isn’t it? Well, in Italian “non me ne importa un fico secco” means “I really don’t give a damn’”, and has as much to do with dried figs as comparing apples and oranges has with apples or oranges. Why Mr. Weaver didn’t weave this into his translation, I can’t guess. It gives me a chance to get rid of a horrible pun.