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In the beginning were the words. Not the words written by Baudolino, the title character of Umberto Eco’s puckishly erudite new novel, but the ones underneath them. Baudolino opens with its hero’s halting, awkwardly multilingual testament, scrawled on pages purloined from his teacher’s library and “scraped clean…excepting where the writing would not come off.” Thus Eco immediately establishes his fourth novel—and its universe—as a palimpsest, a multilayered text whose claims are as slippery as those of any detective story.

In fact, Baudolino is a detective story—which is not the only thing it shares with The Name of the Rose, the Italian semiotician’s first and most successful novel. A modernist who loves the medieval, Eco here returns to pre-Renaissance Italy, a land above all of else fantastic assertions: dogmas, heresies, dictums, and legends—in other words, fictions, but with the power of revelation rather than mere amusement. This time, however, his protagonist invents rather than interprets myths. This shift may reflect Eco’s identification of himself as more of a novelist and less of an academic, since Baudolino is in a sense autobiographical.

The actual Baudolino is the patron saint of Alessandria, Eco’s hometown, whose founding is one of the many historical events woven into the novel’s tapestry of half-truths. Eco’s Baudolino is the son of peasants from that region, but he’s been adopted by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, also known as Barbarossa, and educated in Paris. In Constantinople in 1204, the 50-ish Baudolino recounts his life story to Niketas, an aristocratic Greek Roman (a Greek-speaking resident of the Byzantine Roman empire) while the city is being sacked by European Latins (people who speak such emerging Latin languages as Italian, French, and Provencal). The disparate babble of the natives and crusaders is no problem for Baudolino, who can master any tongue simply by hearing two people speak it. He’s a natural linguist, but a better liar.

Neither Eco nor Baudolino’s first teacher, Bishop Otto, condemns the young man’s fabrications. Echoing the yet-unborn Nietzsche, Otto tells Baudolino that “the world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things.” Baudolino is literally a poet, although he willingly attributes the verses he writes to a friend, who’s known as the Poet although he doesn’t actually write. Baudolino’s other college chums, some of them based on actual 12th-century figures, include Boron, a French cleric who abhors a vacuum; Kyot, who learned the legend of the Holy Grail while traveling in Brittany; and Abdul, the son of a Provencal father and an Irish mother, who was born in Syria and spent some years as a captive of the Arab cult of assassins, whose members are kept drugged with “green honey” (hashish, presumably). Abdul thinks in Arabic, sings in Provencal—the tongue of the troubadours—and maintains that Gaelic is the true language, constructed from the 72 dialects that arose after the fall of the Tower of Babel.

With a passion for self-delusion typical of Baudolino’s characters, Abdul ardently loves a princess he fantasized while stoned on green honey. His Italian friend worships a woman who’s only slightly more accessible: Beatrice, Frederick’s young bride—and therefore Baudolino’s adoptive stepmother. Baudolino writes passionate love letters to Beatrice and then pens her replies, constructing a correspondence that could hardly be more satisfying if Beatrice were actually party to it. These letters ultimately prove influential, but they are not the most important missives Baudolino fabricates.

The young man is as devoted to Frederick as to Beatrice, even though the emperor is forever making war on one of the city-states of Lombardy, Baudolino’s native region. It is with the goal of making Frederick’s position unassailable that Baudolino conjures his greatest deception. Drawing on a few tales Baudolino’s heard from Otto and Kyot, he and his friends write a letter to Frederick from Prester John, the mythical ruler of a mythical Christian kingdom to the East, perhaps in India, perhaps beyond. Prester John is reputed to be a Nestorian—and thus incorrectly believes that Christ had both human and divine natures—but his support would nonetheless be a coup in Frederick’s power struggle with the papacy. The priestly king’s land could be where St. Thomas traveled after the crucifixion, the home of the Magi, and the sanctuary of the Holy Grail. As they construct their notion of Prester John’s realm, the friends acquire a Jewish colleague, Solomon, who believes the fabled country also harbors the lost tribes of Israel. Eventually, Baudolino both seeks and fabricates the True Grail, and ends up with the Shroud of Turin in his luggage.

Although he doesn’t mention the Masons, Eco seems to be constructing a universal—well, European—theory of medieval mystical claptrap. But Baudolino is also a picaresque tale, with bows to various mystery genres and early science fiction, as well as snippets of actual history. Headed for Prester John’s kingdom, Baudolino and his friends join Frederick on his 1189 crusade to retake Jerusalem from Saladin, during which the emperor mysteriously dies. That’s factual, although Eco playfully has Frederick succumb in a locked room, and the odor of conspiracy from the emperor’s death lingers around Baudolino’s gang for another 15 years. The search for Prester John’s kingdom continues, and eventually the contingent—now swelled to the mystical number of 13—reaches what seems to be the outer reaches of its destination, a region that combines elements of Iran, India, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and sheer whimsy. There the companions meet several varieties of strange semihuman creatures, some of them derived from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a 14th-century apocryphal account of a journey to the East. Eco can’t resist having each species believe a different Christian heresy.

Before Baudolino sets out to find Prester John, his earthy biological father (based on the legendary character who supposedly saved Alessandria from Barbarossa) deflates the quest by calling his son’s tales of the fabled East “all bullshit.” Of course they are, but the real problem is they’re bullshit of a sort for which Eco has no particular flair. When he wanders too far from the library, the writer loses his way, and the last third of the book meanders. Eco flatters himself by having Niketas compare Baudolino’s chronicle to a dream, but it doesn’t achieve that sort of visionary quality. The novelist reaches for a Name of the Rose-style climax by reuniting the surviving members of the exploration party in a catacomb beneath Constantinople for a mystery-solving showdown. The question that’s resolved isn’t essential to the story, however, so it doesn’t provide as satisfying a conclusion as The Name of the Rose’s final find.

Baudolino is an easier read than Eco’s previous romp through medieval scholarship, if only because it contains less Latin. In places, the book is even a little obvious. The recurrent theme is that medieval scholars and modern semioticians alike believe in the mutability of truths and texts, if for different reasons. Far from being an age of implacable doctrine, Eco slyly suggests, the Middle Ages welcomed revisions, additions, and outright frauds, so long as they served a purpose. “Any story can be valid,” the Poet explains; Niketas notes of holy relics that “it is faith that makes them true, not they that make faith true”—to which Baudolino replies, “I also thought that a relic is valid if it finds its proper place in a true story.”

As a high priest of relativism, Eco agrees, although his is a different sort of faith. He believes in books, and he makes his hero nothing less than the father of modern literature: “I was maybe the first to try to write the way we talked,” Baudolino explains of the semiliterate minimemoir that opens the novel. A trickster who becomes a prophet, he crafts legends that linger today, inventing “things that were not true, but then became true.” This is more than Baudolino can accomplish, and not just because these are more skeptical times. (Not much more, Eco suggests, apparently thinking of contemporary clairvoyants when he has Baudolino note that “people will believe anything provided it’s the dead who speak.”) Of course, a story needs readers, just as—Baudolino notes—”God needs us.” Still, the book ends with a mischievous tribute to its creator, not its interpreters. CP