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Before you decide if you want to read Baudolino, remember whether you liked Candide or not. If you did, this book will be fun. If you know very much about medieval history, as well, then this book will be a must!
If you did not like Candide, you will probably hate Baudolino.
One of the central tenets of medieval society was loyalty owed to those to whom one was tied by fealty or by custom. Baudolino was a northern Italian peasant, and owed loyalty only to the knights and lords with rights over his father's land. Then, an event intervenes and he becomes bound to Frederick Barbarossa (red beard) who becomes the first Holy Roman Emperor. Baudolino's tale explores that medieval loyalty as a theme in the same exaggerated way that Voltarie used Candide to explore optimism.
While spending time with Niketas Choniates, a high court official in Constantinople, as they flee together from the knights of the Fourth Crusade, Baudolino recounts the Candide-like story of his life from the time he met Frederick.
In the process, the favorite themes of the Middle Ages are all considered including chivalry, romantic love, lust, marriage, the crusades, the relationship between church and state, the rise of the city, clerical practices, religious beliefs, religious relics, traitorous behavior, fascination with heretical beliefs, imaginary animals, magic, alchemy and the Crusades. Each subject is done in a satirical way that reveals a cynical view of how people could (and probably did) turn each matter to practical personal benefit.
Not satisfied with that lampooning accomplishment, Mr. Eco also draws on the styles of Dante, Cervantes, and Swift while making indirect references to their work. For example, you will be amused as Baudolino falls hopelessly in love with the unattainable Beatrice, who in this case is the emperor's wife. In a humorous reference to Candide, Baudolino steals a kiss . . . and has to remove himself from her presence after that.
Within the context of the story, the main historical events are real. Baudolino, like the egotist in us all, builds his tale so that he is the key actor in every event. As they say, success has a thousand fathers while failure has none. The satires on human venality and foibles are unrelenting and almost cynical. I think some would be offended by the fun poked at their own religions here. . . until they realize that Baudolino takes on almost all religions of the time in one place or another in the book.
One of Baudolino's key approaches to solving problems is to manufacture false manuscripts, relics and other evidence that suit his purposes. Despite this, it is a testament to his commitment to Frederick that he takes himself to pursue the mythical Prester John to deliver a false relic that Baudolino helped produce.
For those who are fans of The Name of the Rose, Mr. Eco even includes a locked room mystery that will keep you guessing until the last pages of the book.
I was bowled away by the imagination and ingenuity of the story and the many satirical directions it takes. I would be very surprised if I read a better satire in the next ten years.
After you finish this book, I suggest that you think about where you have put loyalty above the truth. How would someone else see your actions? Would you redo those actions now, if you could?