Book Talk: 'Baudolino' by Umberto Eco - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Baudolino' by Umberto Eco

Alexander Wallace calls a spade a spade.
Go into the ‘Fiction & Literature’ section of your local Barnes & Noble and browse for a bit, reading the blurbs on the back cover for anything you may feel vaguely interested in. Chances are a number of them will involve fantastic elements, no matter how hoity-toity the section may otherwise seem. The truth of the matter is that a certain sort of litterateur that prides themself on being ‘classy’ and ‘sophisticated’ and deny the labels of ‘fantasy ‘ or ‘science fiction’ whenever one of their preferred works has obvious fantastical elements.

Fortunately, I am an unrepentant nerd, and I have no compunctions about calling a spade a spade. Today, we’ll be talking Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, his picaresque novel about an Italian peasant boy who is adopted by Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, who develops a lifelong obsession with Prester John, the mythical Christian king of a dominion beyond the lands ruled by Muslim dynasties. The book follows his journey through the imperial courts, his education in Paris, his service to the Emperor himself, and ultimately his quest to find the Kingdom of Prester John.

For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Umberto Eco was a writer and semiotician (one who studies signs and signalling). He was an Italian and died in 2016. He was the sort of latter-day renaissance man that I aspire to be; he had a wide variety of interests in wildly different disciplines, and was an incredible writer to boot. He wrote The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, and Foucault’s Pendulum, a doorstopper of a book involving conspiracy theories that has been described as “the smarter version of a Dan Brown book.” Reading Eco is something like reading Kim Stanley Robinson; he is immensely knowledgeable, he will never let you forget it, and you will feel just a bit smarter by the time the whole thing is over.

You follow Baudolino, the titular character named after the local patron saint of his hometown, through several decades. You feel strangely intimate with him as you see him go from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, all the while retaining his overriding purpose in life. He reads almost like a perfected version of the traditional farm boy fantasy protagonist, done with more skill than most of them. That writing is stellar, far more heady than such stories usually are, and Eco’s skill comes out wonderfully in William Weaver’s translation.

This book does not become an all-out fantasy novel until Baudolino and his motley crew actually set out to find the Kingdom of Prester John. Those of you who are familiar with Medieval theories on what was in the rest of the world will recognize many of the strange creatures and places that they visit. Running through all this is a philosophical undertone, as Eco was fond of, giving the whole enterprise a substance that many such stories lack.

Baudolino is a story, ultimately, about travel. It is about how we change as we go through different phases of our lives, playing out our little dramas in different corners of the world. From Paris to somewhere beyond anywhere on our Earth, Baudolino embodies the journey that is life, no matter what it lasts in mileage. Life is a journey, not a destination, even if it starts in a small town in Italy and enables a siege. The world is bizarre and seemingly infinite, as Eco well knows.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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