is so great I need to tell you about it. I've read one other Eco novel so far, Name of the Rose, his first fiction piece, and it was great because of Eco's incredible knowledge of medieval history coupled with a scientific understanding of popular fiction--here was a completely intelligent, theologically aware story, that was all about thinking, as opposed to sitting back and watching events unfold (which, incidentally, it was also about). The Name of the Rose was cool because it tricked you into thinking you were reading light mainstream fiction while really you were diving into some pretty thorough examinations of medieval logic and sociology.
The Name of the Rose was his first novel. Baudolino was published in 2000, some half-dozen or so novels later. It's that much more complex, while at the same time coming off as that much more simple and entertaining.
Baudolino's a simple bloke from a backwater Italian swamp-town in the late 12th century. He has a knack for linguistics: he can learn foreign languages in a snap and he can tell a good story. Naturally, he's a big liar, but not in a malicious way: Baudolino never lies to gain power or (intentionally) get folks into trouble, but only to help. So begins the plot:
The book really has two hemispheres: the first half describes how Baudolino is, through his white lies, responsible for most of the important political maneuvers in the occident from the 1160s through the 80s, including but not limited to the canonization of Charlemagne, the founding of Alessandria, Italy (Eco's home town), and one of the crusades, not to mention a ton of others, ones that I'm not even aware of, because Eco plays off all these accomplishments as matter-of-course.
The second hemisphere is what makes the book really worthwhile, and not just a series of random but funny accidents. Baudolino heads off on a trip to Prester John's kingdom, apparently one of those mystical things being chased around that time, like the Holy Grail. The story fills up pretty quick with ridiculous situations, places, and creatures of all kinds that isn't remotely believable, but is passed off as truth. I won't spoil any more plot for you, but here's why it's cool:
Baudolino is a big damn illustrative essay on old-fashioned storytelling. Old stories (like Homer's yarns, the Bible, etc.) have a lot of historical basis going for them, but then some strange stuff happens, like gods descending onto the battlefield in front of Troy, or a whale swallowing a guy and spitting him onto the shores of Nineveh three days later, or the sun stopping for Charlemagne so he can catch up to the Saracens before nightfall to avenge Roland...the point is, most old stories like that, even historical accounts, are usually filled to the brim with fact and fiction all at the same time. In this book, Eco gives us a jolly good mix of both: the first half being an easily swallowable account of the life of Baudolino who, though in incredibly unlikely ways, has changed the course of history multiple times; the second half being a hard-t'digest epic journey in the line of a good old fashioned Grail Hunt.
In other words, the story is first facty-fiction, then fictiony-fact, but for the purposes of the story, it's all true, because there's no reason to doubt Baudolino, except that he's a liar. And while that'll make for a cool story in itself, Eco goes further. His awesome understanding of multiculturalism during the period and the ways in which we view the period nowadays let him tailor the themes and motifs of the story to such a tight degree that I'm having a hard time expressing why it's not just so good, but so important, for anyone interested in narrative art to read. But I'm gonna.
What I mean is this: the fucking guy wrote a story about storytelling in the middle of a point in history where there was nothing but bullshit running rampant everywhere. The crusades were on: tons of backwater Europeans were diving headfirst into Saladin's Jerusalem, trying to liberate it for Christendom. A buncha guys from a buncha countries that at some point in the past few generations had been at war were suddenly buddying up, heading to a place with a completely different climate, flora, fauna, and culture. So, right there you have the grinding process of multicultural integration, but it's on a few levels, because you have conflicting cultures trying to get along, people who think the food the guy next to them eats, or the way he believes in God is weird as hell, and for two, those cultures have to go to a new and definitely strange part of the world to fight people that don't even believe in your God, let alone eat the same food, wear the same clothes, write in the same friggin alphabet. Stories and rumors abound, from each side, towards every side. THEN you have the results of these attempted colonialisms--people start talking about the Grail, about paradise-kingdoms to the east, about God knows what--and even more stories start to spring up. Then, of course, you have the political turmoil that ravaged Europe in the dark ages, turmoil that makes the modern Middle East look like a bad day in Kindergarten, and you find yourself with a whole batch of conflicting stories, rumors, reasons, and the like. THE COOL THING IS: Eco ties it (it being total chaos) all together through the fibbing storyteller Baudolino, and in doing so creates a pretty tight thesis on the state of cultural/political affairs in southern Europe in the late 12th century.
This is one of the books they should've assigned in creative writing classes but never did.