Like most people, I first heard about Umberto Eco when The name of the rose became a bestseller back in the late 1980s. I’ve always been meaning to read that book, but somehow never got around to it. Eco would come back to haunt me in grad school, when I was studying philosophy, as one of my profs was really into semiotics and Eco has actually written some important stuff on signs and symbols. But I never looked at his semiotics stuff very closely.
In library school, I tried to begin Foucault’s pendulum, but lacked the time to and energy for such a dense book. I finally picked up some of Eco’s essays (collected in Misreadings and How to travel with a fish) and thought the essays were pretty good — who can resist publishers’ rejection letters for The Iliad and The bible (“Regretfully, we are returning your…”) or a retelling of Lolita with the object of desire replaced by a geriatric patient (“Granita”)?
Here’s an oft-quoted excerpt, the rejection letter for the bible:
I must say that the first few hundred pages of this manuscript really hooked me. Action-packed, they have everything today’s reader wants in a good story. Sex (lots of it, including adultery, sodomy, incest), also murder, war, massacres, and so on.
The Sodom and Gomorrah chapter, with the transvestites putting the make on the angels, is worthy of Rabelais; the Noah stories are pure Jules Verne; the escape from Egypt cries out to be turned into a major motion picture . . . In other words, a real blockbuster, very well structured, with plenty of twists, full of invention, with just the right amount of piety, and never lapsing into tragedy.
But as I kept on reading, I realized that this is actually an anthology, involving several writers, with many–too many–stretches of poetry, and passages that are downright mawkish and boring, and jeremiads that make no sense.
The end result is a monster omnibus. It seems to have something for everybody, but ends up appealing to nobody. And acquiring the rights from all these different authors will mean big headaches, unless the editor takes care of that himself. The editor’s name, by the way, doesn’t appear anywhere on the manuscript, not even in the table of contents. Is there some reason for keeping his identity a secret?
I’d suggest trying to get the rights only to the first five chapters. We’re on sure ground there. Also come up with a better title. How about The Red Sea Desperadoes?
Anyway, Baudolino became the first of his novels I’ve had any success with, and it is pretty awesome.
The title character is rogue and liar who generally believes his own tales, and the framing story is that he is telling his life story to a wealthy Byzantine gourmand while the two flee Constantinople, which is being sacked by crusaders during the fourth crusade. Baudolino rises above his peasant upbringing to enter the court of Frederick “Barbarossa”, the Holy Roman emperor, and goes on to study in Paris, work as a spy, and eventually embark on an epic quest with a motley assortment of companions to find the legendary kingdom of Prester John.
The first half of the book is largely historical and rationalist (for example, Baudolino carefully observes and explains the trickery of a “necromancer” and meets a scientific revolutionary who recreates some engineering feats of antiquity); the second half slowly increases the fantasy until our protagonists are fighting chimeras and manticores, and leading armies of blemmyae, sciapods, and other Plinian races against an invading army of Huns. [I have long fantasized about creating an army of Plinian races for Hordes of the Things and this passage may finally inspire me to do it!] The second half also gives some great fantastic settings and encounters that I’ll probably steal for my own D&D game — all based on literal or figurative interpretations of medieval travelers’ tales and folklore, much of it so obscure that it seems like pure invention.
Eco is sometimes compared unfavorably to Jorge Borges. I do see some similarities, although Eco is a lot funnier; Borges is usually more serious and mind-blowing. But Borges wrote no novels.
The novel never lagged, for me, even when the characters get drawn into theological debates. Eco chose what is probably the most interesting period of the middle ages — when the crusades taken on an air of realpolitik, people like Barbarossa, Richard the Lionheart, and the Old Man of the Mountain were alive, and science and magic were beginning to become distinguishable from religion. By placing the most fantastic elements of the story in the East, and keeping events in the West realistic (if occasionally absurd), he creates a vivid picture of what life might have been like before travel and communication brushed away the legends people told about foreign lands.
The novel is not without literary pretensions and students of semiotics will surely enjoy the unreliable narrator, the outright lies and sophistry of the characters, and the characters’ anxiety that their story will never be told, and the extremely plastic nature of truth (which may depend much more on communication and interpretation than on a correspondence between reality and propositions). I think this is probably one of those books I’ll reread at some point and appreciate for the epistemological puzzles as much as the story, so I guess this one should find a place on the shelf among Borges (for the erudite fantasy) and Pratt’s Well of the unicorn (for the philosophical puzzling) and Vance (for the picaresque setting and characters, and the excellent dialogue).