The Sound of Baudolino

Cropped from Massacio's The Tribute Money

“What are you up to?” he asked, to open the conversation. And one of them, giving him a nasty look, said they were building a machine to scratch their cock. Now, since all the others started laughing and it was clear they were laughing at him, Baudolino…replied in the Frescheta dialect…that he had no need of a machine because, as a rule, his prick, as respectable people called it, was regularly scratched by those sluts of their mothers.

Baudolino is my kind of book for all sorts of reasons that I’m sure I’ll write about later, but the one I want to talk about here, very briefly, is its lightness—this book is quick and funny, and treats all kinds of heavy plodding topics of medieval thought with a kind of dancing whimsical joy. Umberto Eco is Julie Andrews, and, for him, the hills are aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive with the sound of filioque!

That obsessively numbing topic, the question of the nature of Christ’s essence, has probably claimed many other novelists—a black sticky resin that seizes their ankles and drags them deep down into a black tar pit, never to be seen again, except as bleached skeletons surfacing every now and then with the help of a hot volcanic bubble—but Eco gets to the whole thing in a single quick paragraph, and then dances on through his field of medieval grain.

Historical Fiction is probably my favorite genre because I believe it has the greatest power to bring forgotten and neglected worlds to life, and in our own age, which has no awareness of anything beyond its most immediate past, I think that power is vitally important. We learn lessons, we learn how to live, from our own memory and our own past—and history is the memory of civilization, history contains all the wonderful stories and folk tales you could ever hope to ask for—it’s a cave packed with mounds of golden treasure, the deepest oil well in the greatest desert, set afire and shining through the night.

And Baudolino is an exemplar of historical fiction. This is a great book, and even if you have no interest in the destruction of Constantinople or the myth of Presbyter John, you’ll soon find yourself with all kinds of questions about these things, and a thousand more on top of those—it piques curiosity in the past, hints at the lives of people long since forgotten, and spurs us to a greater awareness of human civilization.

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