Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Fact vs. Fiction vs. History: Umberto Eco’s Baudolino

Fact vs. Fiction vs. History: Umberto Eco’s Baudolino

Ong Khan as “Prester John” | Image via Wikipedia

Umberto Eco holds the unique distinction of being well known for two related but different contributions to Western culture. On the one hand, he is a renowned semiotician, for which he holds a professorship at the University of Bologna. On the other, he is a best-selling author of novels like the medieval mystery In the Name of the Rose. To most casual observers, the difference between a humanities scholar and a writer of commercial fiction may not appear to be so drastic. After all, we live in an age when Jersey Shore cast members can also top the best-sellers list with their own novels. But the accessibility of Eco’s fiction is at least the source of some surprise. What a practitioner of the literary theory of Deconstruction considers “fun” and what a layperson might read for leisure are likely two different things, which is why the novel Baudolino is the exception that proves the rule. The approachable nature of Baudolino makes for an exceptional fictional work: in crossing and recrossing the lines dividing facts from pure fantasies, Eco uses the novel to propel the idea that both modern and medieval societies preferred entertaining falsehoods to the authentic depictions of their current circumstances.

Set in the early years of the 13th century (before Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer, the poets of Frederick II’s court), the protagonist of this work is a barely literate liar who carries around a stolen parchment upon which he intends to write his life story. Right away, we discover that this quirky character named Baudolino is an unreliable narrator, and Eco relishes the opportunity to use this fictional figure to weave together a satirical history of Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, also known as Barbarossa. The exuberance of the storytelling (translated from Italian by William Weaver) and the spectacularly invented tall tales suggest that Eco enjoyed writing the text as much as he hoped a reader might. Beyond that, though, the unreliability of the story that unfolds forces a reader to stay engaged in the book while also searching for the “real” history behind the assertions that Baudolino makes. Whether it’s wars with Milan, Genoa, and other Italian city-states, or rivalries with Popes and Byzantines, Baudolino disrupts and distorts a static view of history by reducing the grandiose narratives into petty jealousies and unfounded rumors. Because Baudolino can lie to his emperor (and adoptive father) as well as he can to his Byzantine host Niketas—to whom he recounts these tales—he not only influences the outcome of major European events but preys on a reader’s ignorance to all of the nuances of that era.

[pullquote_right]We know we’re being lied to from the outset, but the novel is comedic enough that readers can play along.[/pullquote_right]

One of the main plot points of the novel also happens to revolve around an apocryphal story that was, in fact, widely disseminated throughout the Middle Ages. The existence and possible wealth of a man named Prester John (alternately spelled Prebyster in the text and recorded history alike) inspires the young Baudolino and his schoolmates in Paris to contribute to the crowd-sourced narrative of this priest-king and to send a duplicitous letter to Barbarossa so that they might procure the resources to this mysterious kingdom. Although there is no real-life record of Baudolino, there is evidence that a forged letter from this fictional sovereign based somewhere “beyond the Indias” circulated throughout the Holy Roman and Byzantine empires, just as it happens in Eco’s book. This letter pokes fun at the urban legends circulating in the Middle Ages and at the limits of Western knowledge in that era and also shows how medieval Europe was primarily sandwiched within a triangulated power play between the Holy Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic church, and the Greek Orthodox world. The myths are the sugar to make the medicinal historical lessons go down, so to speak.

Another major historical reality was the economy behind the act of simony, which is one of those historical lessons that Eco playfully integrates into this novel. As the Crusades brought many different factions of Western Christians to the Holy Land, there became a cottage industry of selling religious artifacts to churches and wealthy individuals. These fabricated relics were quite literally sold as pieces of the true cross, petrified organs of a saint or any number of other possible items of religious value. This dubious practice was called simony (after Simon Magus, who wants to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from Jesus’s disciples so that he can turn around and sell it to other people), and it was so rampant a crime in the Middle Ages that Dante places Simonists in the Eighth Circle of the Inferno, below Anger, Lust, Violence and even Heresy. Not surprisingly, Eco uses this almost-comical industry to great effect, and when it finally comes time for Baudolino’s band of pilgrims to set off in search of Prester John, they do so in hopes of funding their trip with seven different heads of John the Baptist.

Because of the unreliability of Baudolino as narrator, and because the duplicity of simony already toys with the line dividing fact from fiction, suspending one’s disbelief becomes the overarching challenge of the novel. We know we’re being lied to from the outset, and even Master Niketas is aware of the lies he’s being told by Baudolino, but most of the novel is both relatable and comedic enough that readers can play along. This delicate balance breaks down in the last third of the novel, however, and the potent blend of fact, fiction, and deceit turns into wholly far-fetched scenes beyond the edges of the known world. Within the context of the history that Baudolino shares with Niketas, it is important for him to speak to what happened at the end of his hunt for Prester John, but the stories are too mythical and far-fetched even for the implicit rules Eco states early on in the work—by making the narrator a confirmed liar, Baudolino quickly establishes the need for a high degree of tolerance for truth-bending and fabrications. After a certain point, though, the reader will be even more impatient than Niketas is for Baudolino to finish his tale.

[pullquote_left]In the English-speaking world, the chasm between fact and fiction is conventional and linguistic.[/pullquote_left]

Perhaps a possible explanation for the diversions into the realm of pure fantasy lies in the final chapters of the novel. When the story-within-a-story ends and the narrative returns to Baudolino and Niketas in real time, Baudolino abandons his lying ways and embraces a life of unbridled truth-telling. Without giving anything away, this decision leads to somewhat depressing ends. Umberto Eco plays his hand as an elder statesman of Semiotics (the academic course of study regarding signs and symbols in a variety of cultural artifacts) by playing with the symbolism of Baudolino as a vivacious and corpulent liar and his later transformation into the shriveled truth-teller in Constantinople. This is to say that the thematic conclusion of Baudolino presents a view of society (both past and present) as a collection of people who prefer entertaining falsehoods rather than realities. Eco’s academic chops imply a masterful understanding that the signs and symbols of this world are backed by meanings that are both artificial and man-made, but Baudolino (along with his other historical fiction) seems to endorse the necessity of such artifice. The general public may not be inclined to pick up a dense and esoteric academic discussion of Semiotics, but they can definitely grasp the basics if they are presented with the implications of these ideas and are simultaneously entertained by the stories that authors like Eco invent.

As a work of historical fiction, there is also a meta-narrative pun that the English translation of Baudolino cannot properly convey. In Italian, the word for history is the same as the word for story (storia), and embedded in that dual meaning is the fact that there can never be a clean-cut severing of one side from the other. So when Baudolino opens the novel by explaining that he wants to share his storia, it deftly points to a cultural and thematic contact zone that an American reader might not even realize. In the English-speaking world, the chasm between what is considered factual and fictional is simultaneously conventional and linguistic. Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that there is more to our national (hi)story than the things we read in the classroom (shifting opinions on figures like Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson are just some examples of this phenomenon), which is why we can benefit from writers, like Umberto Eco, who examine the blend of fact and fiction that goes into mythmaking. More so, there is a lot that we can learn from Continental authors whose national stories are sometimes more grandiose, often times older, and also linguistically represented as tales for which there are unknowable percentages of fact and fiction.

Even if the linguistic pun cannot be made explicit in the English language, Baudolino nevertheless pushes the boundaries of historical fiction past settings and characters alone and forces us to consider the modernity of the medieval, the dynamic qualities of bygone eras, and the unchanging truths of human nature.