a chapter excerpt from
DISCOVERING THE NARRATOR IN BAUDOLINO
Umberto Eco’s novel Baudolino opens with a text purportedly written by Baudolino when he was between the ages of 12 and14. In Chapter 2, as Baudolino begins narrating his tale to “Master Niketas,” the historian and high court official of Constantinople whose life he has just saved, Niketas is seen turning a parchment over in his hands attempting to decipher it.
“What’s this?” he asks Baudolino.
Baudolino answers, “It’s my first attempt at writing…I was fourteen, I think, and was still a boy of the woods.” He goes on to explain that he kept it with him like an amulet. Over the years, he gradually added to it slowly writing his Gesta Baudolino, the story of his life and the journey he narrates. “But,” he laments, “in the escape from the kingdom of Prester John…”
Niketas interrupts him, “Prester John? Never heard of him.”
The interruption accomplishes two things: it announces the course of the entire narrative to come – the quest for Prester John – and it diverts our attention away from the parchment in Niketas’s hands. My interruption is to draw our attention back to the parchment.
Baudolino quickly addresses both, “I’ll tell you more about him – maybe even too much. But as I was saying: During the escape I lost these pages. It was like losing life itself.”
Here Niketas assures him that he will be a good listener, hear his story, and, as a chronicler of histories himself, he will help Baudolino remember his Gesta Baudolino. From this point Niketas is hooked as a listener, and we, as readers, share his commitment. We agree to listen to both Baudolino’s story and the narrator’s telling of Baudolino’s story to Niketas and suspend our disbelief and draw conclusions at the end.
“Narrator?” my reader might interrupt me, “Never heard of him.”
I’ll tell you more about him – maybe even too much. But as I was saying: Baudolino tells us that he wrote the text when he was still a boy of the woods. But we come to learn that the pages were not written in the woods, in Frascheta, but instead were written in the court of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa where Baudolino learned and was inspired to write. The country boy now in the city, anxious to express himself with his new skills, had the passion for writing but lacked the parchment to write on. So, as many children might, he grabbed what was handy, a parchment that contained the working draft of someone else’s writing, and scratched off all of the text in order to create a blank slate for himself – a palimpsest, we call this, a text written over another text. As he narrates to Niketas, we come to learn the name of the working draft that he overwrote – it was the Chronica seve Historia de fuabus civitatibus of Bishop Otto, the advisor in whose care he was entrusted after arriving in Frederick’s court. Bishop Otto had been working on his Chronica for over ten years. The bishop accused others around him of taking his parchment, but Baudolino, then a child, never dared to confess that he was the culprit, even while Baudolino himself became Otto’s scribe as the bishop began rewriting his text from scratch. Baudolino remembers the date of the writing of his juvenilia with astounding accuracy: it was in Anno domini 1155, between April and December 1155, at age 14.
As Niketas listens to the beginning of Baudolino’s tale he interrupts again to ask, “Why are you devoting yourself to me?” Baudolino, after rescuing Niketas from ruffians who are sacking Constantinople, sets him up in a safe house with his Genoese friends in that city. Baudolino explains his motives: “You see, Master Niketas, I know you are a writer of stories, just as Bishop Otto of Freising was. But when I knew Bishop Otto, I was only a boy and I had no story, I wanted to know only the stories of others. Now I might have a story of my own, though I’ve lost everything I had written down about my past…”
I’ll interrupt again to repeat: “I’ve lost everything I had written down about my past,” Baudolino says. He explains to Niketas that he would like him to act as his scribe, just as Baudolino acted as Bishop Otto’s scribe when the Bishop rewrote his lost text. He wants Niketas to help him rewrite his Gesta Baudolino, the text he lost during his escape from the Kingdom of Prester John (which, we learn, he never precisely arrived there). We should note that while Niketas is still apparently holding the parchment of Baudolino’s juvenilia, this is the second time Baudolino admits to having lost “everything I had written down about my past.” The parchment on which these young writings are on is not only being turned over in the hands of Niketas as Baudolino says this, but the text of that document exists as Chapter 1 of the novel. Clearly, somehow, it exists. But How? Niketas doesn’t ask this question, nor are we supposed to, yet.
The narration and Baudolino’s story swiftly continue, beginning at the end with the announcement that he has just killed a man – which we find later is his friend The Poet –– and Niketas, once again, offers his dedication as a listener to Baudolino’s story and, after it is finished, to help Baudolino sort out the facts and help him rewrite his lost story. As first-time readers with the goal of finding out what happens next, we too overlook this detail of the mysteriously present yet missing parchment and text.
After this first meeting and a night of rest, once both of them have accepted their roles, and we, as readers, have accepted ours, the next morning Baudolino is ready to begin telling his story from the beginning. Chapter 3 starts again where Chapter 2 did but with more detail: Baudolino opens a leather bag he carries around his neck and hands Niketas the parchment. “This is the beginning of my story,” he says, to which Niketas asks, “What’s this?” and turns the parchment over in his hands. At the repetition of this moment, we, as readers, should now be asking also: “What’s this?”
Baudolino has told us twice already that he lost “everything” of his writing in his escape from the kingdom of Prester John. What’s this? is a relevant question as he pulls a parchment from a leather bag that he wears around his neck like an amulet.
But, as our narrator is quick with distraction, our question is different from that of Niketas, who suspects nothing. He says, “I mean – what language is it written in?” And Baudolino begins telling the story of how he learned to write, of how he combined the writing in the vernacular of his hometown Frascheta with the language that he heard spoken around him, that of the people of Asti, Pavia, Milan, and Genoa and of construction workers who had come from elsewhere to build in the city, and with the Latin that he was just beginning to copy without knowing its meaning. And, as he references the parchment that Niketas is holding, added to this confusion of languages are those words written by Bishop Otto that he was not able to erase. All of this combines to form a collaged language.
Now Baudolino confesses to Niketas – probably for the first time to anyone – that he took, without knowing, Bishop Otto’s draft of his Chronica and overwrote it. But the irony of this is not beyond Baudolino as he remarks to Niketas, “As you say, justice does exist, because I then lost my own chronicle, only I didn’t have the courage to write it over.”[Eco, Baudolino, 39].
As readers, we have now been told a third time that the parchment clearly documented as Chapter 1 of the novel and coming from a leather bag from around Baudolino’s neck and turned over in the hands of Niketas does not exist. He does not say a portion of it was lost, but instead that “everything I had written down about my past,” was lost. In writing sketch comedy, there is a three beat format. A joke is effective if it repeats with escalation, no more and no less than, three times. On this third beat, the narrator, through Baudolino’s voice, escalates his previous two beats where he announced the loss of the document: he didn’t have the courage to write it over. Beat one: During my escape from the Kingdom of Prester John, “I lost these pages. It was like losing life itself.” Beat two: “Now I might have a story of my own, though I’ve lost everything I had written down about my past…” And beat three: “I then lost my own chronicle, only I didn’t have the courage to write it over.”
What’s this, this document that comes from his neck, this parchment that Niketas holds, the text of Chapter 1? Who wrote it?
There is another tenet of comedy writing or improvisation that says that if you introduce an element into the scene, you must also resolve it. If one improviser gestures taking a drink of water from a glass and never sets the imagined glass down, anywhere throughout the scene her improv partner can, and likely should to save the scene, create a moment where either the glass drops and breaks or otherwise reappears. The humor for the audience comes in the reminder that the first improviser forgot to complete the action (as did the audience), but the second did not. Nowhere in the narration of Baudolino is there is a moment where Niketas returns the parchment he is holding to Baudolino. We never see Baudolino reinsert the parchment into his leather bag necklace. The document is never set down, put aside, or stored for safekeeping. In fact, throughout the entirety of Baudolino’s story he never mentions a precious parchment that he wears in a leather bag around his neck, nor does he mention losing such a document when he recounts his dramatic escape from Pndapetizm. Maybe he doesn’t remember where or when he lost it, but surely he would have remarked on such an event at the moment he discovered it to be missing. Even midway through the novel as Baudolino and Niketas and company embark on their trip to Selymbria, we still don’t know where the parchment has gone. For all we know, Niketas is still holding it, maybe sweaty, crinkled and smudged in his palms by now. But even though the parchment has disappeared from our eyes, as a glass might from an audience watching improvisers, it remains “in play”.
Rather than suggesting that the narrator forgot to complete the circle, like an anxious improviser, it is also possible that the narrator performed instead a calculated slight of hand. In Japan, when one exchanges meishi, or business cards, it is considered rude to put the received card into one’s pocket or other casual place. It should either be placed safely in a wallet before the giver’s eyes or the receiver should wait for a clandestine moment to slip the card away with the giver unaware as to where or when it went. This is the action that we witness in the opening of Baudolino. On the one hand, the narrator never wants the parchment to leave the scene. On the other, through slight of hand, he wants the reader to forget about it. This is not to say the narrator, too, has forgotten it. So it remains unresolved – the story has a loose end.
It only reappears to the critical reader who, after reading the novel once, returns for a second reading. And only then can readers begin to ask the question, What’s this? and complete the circle themselves.
After this preamble from Baudolino, Niketas admits to sensing that Baudolino is “the liar of Crete” who tells him he is a confirmed liar but then insists the he be believed. “You want me to believe you’ve told lies to everybody but me.”[Ibid, 40] But the appearance of this parchment and text never comes under his suspicions that lead to his conclusion that Baudolino is a liar. In fact, in most of the reviews and critical texts I have read by others who have written about Baudolino, while everyone confirms that Baudolino is a liar, very few readers, if any, have asked the question, “What’s this?” in regards to the parchment. (Surely someone has, but I have yet to find it). But Niketas is correct in not including the text in the web of Baudolino’s lies because, more than likely, Baudolino himself does not know where this parchment and text came from either. It should come as just as much of a surprise to him as it does to Niketas and to us. The parchment instead belongs to the web of lies that the narrator is telling.
Narrator? You asked. Never heard of him. To the careful reader, the answer only comes at the very end of the novel, in the final line. But even then the answer is tacit.
After Baudolino finishes his storytelling, Niketas, with the help of his blind detective friend Paphnutius, delivers him the disturbing revelation that in addition to murdering his friend The Poet, he has also murdered his adoptive father Frederick. After a fantastical period where Baudolino perches himself up on a platform playing the role of a sage, and Baudolino sets out on his final journey, Niketas reconvenes with Paphnutius to talk again about Baudolino. Niketas asks Paphnutius advice about how he should proceed in writing his history of the sacking of Constantinople and whether or not he should include Baudolino’s account of the events. Paphnutius advises him not to because it is neither trustworthy, nor, if true at all, praiseworthy to Byzantium. Niketas agrees when he acquiesces by saying, “It was a beautiful story. Too bad no one will find out about it.” And if we look to the chronicle written by the historical figure Niketas Choniates, who the character is based on, we see, in fact, he did not include it. Yet, before us, turning over in our own hands, is the chronicle of Baudolino told by a narrator and written by Umberto Eco.
While many interpreters of Eco’s novel attribute the narration to him, this, though tempting, is not completely accurate. There is a better explanation. For example, in his essay “The Return of Umberto Eco: Baudolino Homo Ludens, Describing the Unknown,” Rocco Capozzi first calls Niketas the future narrator of the Gesta Baudolino – suggesting that he is narrating the very story we are reading – but later Capozzi realizes throughout the course of his own essay, when he encounters this moment between Niketas and Paphnutius, that Umberto Eco, not Niketas, narrates the Gesta Baudolino. Though Umberto Eco has written the novel titled Baudolino, there is no reason for us to assume that he is also the narrator. Eco has cautioned us against this many times before.
Who then is the narrator? We learn his name, or at least his description, through Paphnutius, too, in the last line of the novel. Just as Hypathia is distinguished from the other Hypathias not by her name, which they all share, but instead by the descriptor, “the hypathia who goes around with a unicorn named Acacios,”[Ibid, 422] so too is the narrator named. Paphnutius assures Niketas that the story is not lost forever because “sooner or later, someone – a greater liar than Baudolino – will tell it.” And there we have our narrator – “a greater liar than Baudolino.” We don’t know his name, just as we don’t know the names of the writers of so many anonymous texts left behind in libraries from antiquity. Like paintings in museums attributed only to the “Master of The Prado Adoration of the Magi” or the “Master of the Embroidered Foliage” we know the narrator only by the descriptor: “a greater liar than Baudolino.” For convenience, I will give him a nickname: Liar>Baudolino or L>B for short. And from this point we can begin to identify him.
We have many questions to settle. First, what is the difference between Umberto Eco and L>B? Second, how did L>B write this text that Baudolino carries in a leather bag around his neck, and how do we know it is he who wrote it? Third: first, can we fairly call Baudolino a liar, and second, is it true that L>B is, in fact, a greater liar than Baudolino? Does he live up to his name?
The first question is one that Eco has answered throughout his career as a writer and lecturer. He has spent much of his energy teaching us not only how to read his own novels but also how to read all works of fiction. The difference between the empirical author and the model author and the narrator is spelled out in all of Eco’s texts from The Role of the Reader to the present day. Why we can’t call L>B by the name Umberto Eco is simply because it would be too confusing. Calling him Umberto Eco would introduce too much information.
Eco’s most recent reiteration of these ideas comes through an essay titled, “Some Remarks On Fictional Characters” in Confessions of a Young Novelist.1 When a writer introduces information from the real world, Eco explains, the world brings with it all the characteristics of the real world except for those made explicitly different.
One example of this is the river of the Sambatyon, which is a river of stones. With the exception of its stony current and its sudden stopping on Saturdays, it resembles a river in every other way. We should not be surprised if some sort of fish were to emerge from it, no matter how peculiar, because we know rivers to contain fish. In relation to our narrator, by this I mean that if we were to assign the name Umberto Eco to L>B then we would introduce all of the information we know and could know about Umberto Eco, warts and all. All of this information is too much. The reader doesn’t need it. As readers, and better, as model readers and therefore likewise characters created by the small world of the novel (a position Eco has instructed us to take), the results of Umberto Eco’s last cholesterol test or his most recent colonoscopy don’t matter to us. In fact, taking them into our consideration for this novel would be distracting. As empirical readers in the real world, they might matter a great deal to us, because we wish him good health even if only out of our own selfish desire that he continue to write and lecture. But if we were to give the narrator the name of Umberto Eco, these things could be considered relevant to us. In the possible world created within this book, they are not.
He explains further. “Only those attributes mentioned by the text count for the identity of the character.”[Ibid, 82] And, “Fictional texts tell us, rather precisely, which details are relevant for the interpretation of the story, the psychology of characters, and so on, and which ones are peripheral.”[Ibid, 83] There are many things we could know about Umberto Eco that are irrelevant to the narrator.
As far as we are concerned, L>B has no cholesterol. He has no colon. To bastardize a term from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, he is a body without organs. But that is not altogether true. He must have a body because we take him to be a human character. Why? Because he has a voice, he writes, narrates, has an extensive knowledge of human history, and most importantly, because nothing in the story tells us that he is nonhuman. The other clue that we know he has a body comes in the text he forges in Baudolino’s name. There the narrator has fingers and a thumb and he perspires. We fill in the hand, arm and the rest of the body ourselves. We could extend this to include a colon and a cholesterol count, but it is irrelevant to include these details. His hand and arm are relevant to the story. His colon is not. Even if a creative interpreter with medical interests argued that his cholesterol level bore a relationship to his perspiring, there would still be nothing to equate L>B’s count with Eco’s. You may have noticed by now, that along with fingers and thumb, I have also assigned L>B a gender. I have a reason for this, too, beyond what feminists might argue is a biased literary convention.
In the early part of the text attributed to a young Baudolino, there is a break. A line reads, “Jesù writing is hard work all of my fingers ake allready.” (We assume he has four fingers, and not twenty like some unnamed creature from Pndapetizm because nowhere does the text explicitly tell us he does not). On a first reading, the line appears to come from Baudolino as he is writing the words. But the last line of the text introduces some doubt. It reads, “all the same writing a story makes you sweat even in winter also Im [sic] afraid because the lamp has gone out and as the man said my thumb akes”. This phrase, “as the man said” betrays the writer of the document. Who is the man, what did he say, and when would Baudolino have heard it? Earlier the text said, “my fingers ake allready”. Then we assumed that the person whose fingers ached was Baudolino, a boy. If we look back at the spacing of the line and the gaps that separate it from the previous and following text, we could draw another conclusion. The first instance, where the text reads, “my fingers ake allready” the speaker is L>B as he is forging the missing document. In the second instance, L>B is now speaking in the voice of Baudolino when he says, “as the man said my thumb akes.” At this point Baudolino knows there is another man just as the man knows there is a Baudolino. We know his gender because he calls himself a man. In the document, the forger betrays himself. But this is a conceit common to many forgers who are anxious to leave hints of their handiwork for perceptive detectives to find.
By contrast, Allen B. Ruch in his review of Baudolino expressed a different possibility:
Ruch, like Capozzi, fell into the trap of equating L>B with Umberto Eco. Baudolino, purportedly in the year 1155, could have no knowledge of Adso of Melk, who wrote his document in the 1300s, a century before the end of Baudolino’s tale. And therefore he would not know of this line and would certainly not call Adso “the man” because Adso was not yet even an embryo (a fictional one at that). L>B may or may not know of Adso or of the novel titled The Name of the Rose, published in 1980, by the 20th century author Umberto Eco because the text gives us no indication that L>B knows of these extraliterary facts. We cannot assume that he does. Taking Baudolino in isolation, the argument instead that L>B was referring only to his previous comment “my fingers ake allready” and that “the man” is L>B referring to himself in the voice of Baudolino, is wholly justifiable. We need no more. In agreeing to abide by an “internal textual legitimacy”2 this interpretation is more economical than those that reach outside of the text.
For empirical readers, like Capozzi, Ruch, and me, who try to read all of Umberto Eco’s publications, it is fun to find references to the empirical Umberto Eco, and for the empirical Umberto Eco, it is fun for him to leave them3 I’m not arguing with Ruch that Umberto Eco didn’t consciously make this reference, among many others. It is common knowledge that he likes to leave shibboleths for his critical readers.4 I’m merely saying there is an economical account of the aching appendage within the text itself, and this account informs us about the story at hand. The wink to Adso might make for a good Trivial Pursuit question, but in relation to the internal possible world of Baudolino that’s about all.
Now that our narrator, L>B, has a gender, fingers and a thumb that we can connect to a hand, an arm, and a body that perspires, and we can also add the personality traits of exhaustion (it has been a while since he has written by hand), a willingness to deceive, and a sense of humor. We can add other traits along the way as we find them, but there is no need to add more that are unnamed for the sake of seeing him better. We have all the relevant ones we need.
To be clear: Umberto Eco knows everything about L>B. L>B knows nothing about Umberto Eco. Nowhere in the book does L>B reveal any knowledge of a writer named Umberto Eco, nor does he name any of his books. To be sure, L>B is erudite, he knows his medieval history, he knows his philosophical history and his theology, he knows his Latin, he also knows his geography and Italian history. He and Umberto Eco would have plenty to talk about. But there is no indication that he knows of Umberto Eco or his oeuvre. Likewise, though I may read Baudolino and find multiple references that point to previous books by Eco and his characters, or to the books and characters of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Miguel de Cervantes, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle there is no indication in the novel that L>B has read books by any of these authors. Nor does L>B know that an author named Umberto Eco was born in the Italian city of Alessandria. Without a doubt, Eco is making these references. My point is that L>B is not.
I thought if I could date or age L>B it might be helpful to make this distinction. So in Eco’s terms, I took an inferential walk.5 There are a few instances where I thought the language seemed more contemporary than 1204. Taking this tact, I can’t say I hadn’t been warned. Eco ends his Postscript to The Name of the Rose by saying, “Every now and then a critic or reader writes to say that some character of mine declares things that are too modern, and in every one of these instances, and only in these instances, I was actually quoting fourteenth-century texts.”[Postscript, 76] Moments I thought were too contemporary came by way of idiomatic expressions, like “bees in one’s bonnet,” “sticks in one’s craw,” and “beating around the bush,” and in phrases such as fuckall, jerking off, shit in their pants, asshole, Bonehead, scratch their cock, and others we hear often today. But my concern wasn’t so much that they were 20th century expressions but that they were expressions from the 15th century or later – either way not prior to 1204. The expression “to have bees in one’s bonnet” which occurs twice in the novel etymologically (from my best assessment) dates from 1825, but comes from another expression “to have a head full of bees” from around 1510; the documentation of “beating around the bush” dates from around 1570; jerking off from 1896; asshole from arsehole c.1400; bonehead 1908; cock (for penis) in 1610, and so on. But as Eco himself has told us in his writing about the Middle Ages, and as others like Francois Rabelais and Mikhail Bahktin in his book about Rabelais, have made clear, these kinds of expressions and grotesque language were all too common among folks from towns like Frascheta like Baudolino, Galiaudo and Boidi whose mouths these phrases flow from. If these expressions sound contemporary to me, it’s no fault of their own.
There are several explanations for this that implicate the interpreter. First, I could be wrong: Eco may have a 13th century text in his vast library that he took these expressions from; second, these could be an concern only in the English translation – in the Italian original Eco could have used 13th century idiomatic expressions and William Weaver could have been forced to make a translation decision favoring idiomatic and semantic equivalence over etymological accuracy – such is the burden of translators; and third – probably the trump card – even if these exact expressions were not documented prior to 1204, there can be no evidence proving that they or their equivalents were not used orally prior to a late medieval or Renaissance poet scribing them a first time for posterity. So we could say the same about the characters in Baudolino as Eco says about the characters in The Name of the Rose: “…everything the fictional characters like William say ought to have been said in that period.”[Postscript, 75] So though this walk was worth taking, it does not seem to be a battle worth fighting. Even if these exact strings of words could not come from a person living between 1142-1204, the sentiment behind them most certainly could have. So, as the man said, it is not his medieval men who are being modern, it is the moderns who are speaking medievally.[Ibid, 76] Though, as it were, to beat a dead horse, there is a fourth possibility trumping the trump card: if these actual expressions were not documented until, say, the 1400s, it is completely possible that Baudolino himself coined them in his Gesta Baudolino. Ah, but that document was lost. He invents the legitimization of the empire by Bolognese jurors, part of the epistolary of Abelard & Eloise, the legend of the Grail as it will be later told by Wolfram von Escenbach and the letter of Prester John, so what’s the problem with adding to the list the coining of a few idiomatic expressions? Why should Shakespeare and his ilk get most of the credit? Eco himself seems to anticipate this very conclusion when he says in an interview with Laura Lilli about Baudolino in La Republicca in 2000, “There is the usual hidden play on words, but the idea is that they are phrases really invented by Baudolino, and others later could have copied them.”6 With the nail in the coffin, this walk has proven ineffectual.
At one other point in the story I suspected that L>B post-dated Niketas and placed him in the late 19th or early 20th century, but this also turned out to be an illusion. It occurs on page 492 when Baudolino uses the hypothetical name of Ego to explain to Niketas the scene where The Poet accused Kyot, Boron, and Boidi of both killing Frederick and stealing the grasal. Baudolino is hiding behind the scenes. Though the term Ego to us is inseparable from Sigmund Freud, the 20th century founder of psychoanalysis, Baudolino who wrote in Latin knew it as the pronoun equivalent to “I”. As Baudolino narrated the story to Niketas, at this point he knows that it was he who had the grasal all along without knowing it. So using Ego is completely justifiable to serve his double purpose – to name himself as the hypothetical other standing in the shoes of his friends who turns out, after all, to be the “I” (Baudolino himself) who both had the grasal and killed Frederick. Despite the similarity of Baudolino’s use of Ego with reference to Freud’s use of it, there is no indication that he is using it beyond the scope of an educated man in his mid-sixties in the year 1204. Baudolino and L>B clearly know their Latin, so the suspicion that L>B is putting 20th Century knowledge in the mouth of a 13th century character is indefensible. Surely, Eco is also using the term for a double purpose, but this does not translate to L>B doing so. According to the text, L>B is oblivious to Sigmund Freud.7
Though my readers might feel frustrated that I not only got lost in the woods, but I also dragged them through the mud by retracing all of my steps,8 my point in wandering comes to this: if Baudolino had uttered the name Eco instead of Ego, this would be a different ballgame. As for aging L>B, the only information we need to know is that he knows everything that both the fictional Niketas and the historical Niketas Choniates knew. Beyond that we can only guess, and no matter what our guess, the possibility always lingers that Baudolino likely invented our thoughts anyway even before we had a chance to think them up.
By contrast, though the narrator does not use the proper name Eco in the book, he does use the proper names of Frederick Barbarossa, Bishop Otto of Freisling and Niketas (Choniates), all characters who bring with them the complete baggage of their historical counterparts. Here, historians are meant to have a field day in the fiction. He expects readers to draw from their own external historical knowledge of these figures, and, in fact, counts on it for his story to achieve its layers. Readers like me, without an extensive knowledge of this historical era, miss out on much of the creative import. But after reading, I know that if I looked these names up, the doors to these references would unlock. The novel is an elaborate play between fact and fiction, truth and lies, nonfiction and fiction, and empirical figures and models, and it operates on various levels for different types of readers. And these themes are executed by both L>B and Umberto Eco, though their motives are different. I will elaborate on these differences a little further on.
Before returning to the parchment, which is getting sweaty in your hands, I should recognize one more point about contemporary voices. It is not necessary for us 21st century readers to employ only our 13th century knowledge to appreciate the book. My interpretation of the novel betrays the fact that I cannot help but bring my external knowledge of Umberto Eco and his work to my reading. Though I don’t locate Umberto Eco in the story that L>B is telling, I do draw on all of my knowledge of Umberto Eco for my interpretation. The vocabulary and strategies I employ to “see” the parchment are tools I have learned from Eco: empirical reader/model reader, inferential walks, economical interpretation, internal textual legitimacy, and etc. My reading of Baudolino is a 21st century interpretation, and one specifically born from the Umberto Eco school of thought. So as I beg my reader to remove Umberto Eco from the equation of Baudolino, I, all the while, am employing his ideas. But there is no reason why we, as readers, have to use only our encyclopedic knowledge from the Middle Ages to interpret the book, just as Eco does not repress his 21st century knowledge.9 In the end, we have to check the text against our interpretations to find which interpretations are the most economical.
After this digression, I can now return to the parchment: how and why would L>B write or forge Baudolino’s juvenilia? It should be quite clear that he was only following the example of his mentor. Baudolino forged the document of Prester John, he wrote letters in his own voice and replied in the voice of Beatrice and he wrote poems for The Poet. But, lest we forget (which is exactly what he intends), L>B also invented the character named Baudolino who is a forger of the historical record. Rather than taking inspiration from a mentor, L>B has, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, created his own precursor. He has fabricated the story of Baudolino by intricately weaving his name and actions into the facts and gaps in the historical record of European history from 1155 to 1204. He exploited his knowledge of the vacuum – which we are witness to through the discussions of Boron and Ardzrouni – and plugged Baudolino’s name into all of the empty spaces. This is not a new trick: religious believers have been filling in the blanks of the mysteries of life with the name of God for centuries proving that Man is a greater liar than God since man has created God as his own precursor. Once we can finally see the document for what it is, we should not be surprised about how or why L>B would forge it.
Considering then the conclusion that Baudolino is a liar, and that L>B created Baudolino, it seems quite logical for Paphnutias to conclude that the narrator is a greater liar than Baudolino and that L>B lives up to his name. We should perhaps first take a moment to appreciate that we have shined the light on an otherwise well-concealed narrator. Well done. And then, perhaps, we should not rest on our laurels and jump into agreement that L>B lives up to his name, for he may not. It is worth first exploring the nature of lying and its relation to fiction through, for starters Sissela Bok’s book Lying and Sam Harris’ essay Lying, literary hoaxters like J.T. Leroy, the confrontation and resolution between Oprah Winfrey and James Frey, and Umberto Eco’s position on fiction and its relationship to truth in Confessions of a Young Novelist. And through this, we will be able to indulge a bit in comparing Baudolino, L>B, and Umberto Eco, to see who, if any, is the greatest liar of all.
2 Confessions, 90.
3 In The Prague Cemetery, Eco’s novel from 2010, the protagonist Simone Simonini, after a writing binge in 1897, also complains, “my thumb is aching”.[The Prague Cemetery, 37] Also in his essay titled “Writing From Left to Right,” Eco recounts a story from his childhood when he used to write novels by writing the first chapter only after coming up with the title and drawing all of the illustrations. He would write in block letters, mimicking printed books, but, he says, “I would become exhausted after just a few pages and would give up.”[Confessions, 2] Perhaps some other reader will point out aching thumbs and exhausted scribes in Foucault’s Pendulum, Island of the Day Before, and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Maybe for Eco it’s a tag he leaves in all of his books, like the mark of a serial killer or a graffiti artist.
4 “Author, Text, and Interpreters,” Confessions, 51.
5 This is a term and strategy Eco employs in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.
6 See Laura Lilli, La Republicca, September 11, 2000.
7 For that we’ll have to wait for the narrator of The Prague Cemetery.
8 This too turns out to be a strategy learned from Eco: see “Writing From Left to Right” in Confessions where Eco discusses the differences between so-called scientific and creative writing and his strategy of not only including his conclusions in his scientific writings but also all of his trial and error.[Confessions, 6-7].
9 Eco: “Benedetto Croce said that all historiography is contemporary history. It is impossible to tell the story of the Roman Empire now without paying attention to the elements that help you understand your own situation.” [Proctor, Book Forum, Fall 2002]
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Last Updated: Tuesday, January 8, 2013