William Weaver returns once again to translate into English Italy's foremost author and semiotician in this wild and unpredictable romp through the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Lies are the subject; lies and history. Since Herotodus first put his histories into print, these two subjects have been inextricably linked. Thus it is hardly surprising that there are so many parallels that can be drawn between the The Histories and Baudolino. The chief difference is that Baudolino doesn't try to present itself as fact.
Baudolino begins our tale as an old man, recalling his many adventures to a Byzantine minister of state (namely Niketas Choniates, author of O City of Byzantium) as the crusaders are sacking Constantinople. He starts by discussing his childhood, and how he came to be the adopted son of Frederick Barbarossa. The tale moves quickly along to his encounters with the Holy Grail, his adventures on the third crusade, and the search for the elusive Nestorian Kingdom of Prester John.
This is one of those rare and wonderful books that will grab you and not let go until you close the back cover. While it lacks the strange mystery aspect of his earlier novels--The Name of the Rose and Focault's Pendulum-- it still has the ability to keep you guessing. Since the story is supposedly a lie within a lie within a lie, it's all you can do to figure out which parts are supposed to be true. And just when you think the narrator has you steeped up to your eyeballs in falsehoods, some link comes through to validate part of the story and keep you guessing.
The introductory comparison I made with Herodotus was not accidental either. Most of the last half of the book comprises the search for the legendary Prester John, which involves Baudolino and his band of companions (parading as the Magi) travelling into India and farther east. The cast of characters they meet in these heretofore unexplored lands remind me very much of parts of The Histories, as there are one legged men, one eyed giants, people with no discernable head, satyrs, and so forth.
As light as the subject matter sounds, it is still a heavy read. This is Umberto Eco we're talking about, after all. Truly, though, I don't know who the real genius is. William Weaver has translated all four of Eco's novels into English, and I can't read Italian, so it's hard to say if Weaver is faithfully translating a master work, or turning a good story into a masterpiece through his own linguistic talents. Either way, you should be prepared to completely lose yourself in this book, as it's not likely to allow you to set it down once you've started.