Visions of Paradise

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Similarly to science fiction, historical fiction is a sprawling field covering such sub-genres as realistic fiction, historical adventures, historical fantasy, alternate history, and “secret” history. And just as much contemporary science fiction sprawls across several sub-genres simultaneously, not to mention other fictional genres such as mysteries and supernatural horror, historical fiction often treads the boundary between its sub-genres. The master of genre-treading historical fiction has to be Umberto Eco, who popularized historical mysteries with The Name of the Rose, and “secret” histories with Foucault’s Pendulum. Now he offers Baudolino, which straddles so many genres I am not even sure how to classify it.

> It’s a “secret history” which offers fictitious events in the life of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa which, in true “secret” history fashion, make some of the so-called historical events merely facades for what really happened.

> It’s a historical adventure as Baudolino and his colorful companions undertake a journey into unknown Asia in search of the mysterious Prestor John, a legendary person whose existence to this day has never been definitively proven or disproven.

> It’s a historical fantasy filled with unicorns, satyrs, cyclops and numerous other beings of mythology

> It’s a historical mystery as Baudolino and his companions try to learn who was responsible for the mysterious death of Frederick Barbarossa

Any more? It’s a quest, a war novel involving the invasion of Byzantium by crusaders, and a philosophical novel which examines the foundations of modern religion, primarily Christianity.

The novel is narrated by Baudolino to a companion he meets in Byzantium soon after its invasion. In the beginning Baudolino’s story seems frivolous, but as it develops it becomes richer and more fascinating in its examination of medieval tropes and legends which have carried down into modern times.

Eco is a born storyteller who never forgets that all of his philosophy and literary treasures must be subordinated to a strong plot. Baudolino excels in three aspects of what I consider the “ideal” story: storytelling, sense of wonder, and thoughtfulness. Characterization is a bit skimpy as most of the characters demonstrate one or two personal traits to the exclusion of individual depth. This novel is definitely worthwhile reading for anybody who enjoys a good romp across mythology and history.


  • Again, another book I love. I've never read The Name of the Rose, but I did love Foucoult's Pendulum and Baudolino.

    By Blogger Aydreeyin, At 12:55 PM  

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