Sunday, 13 May 2007

Baudolino, by Umberto Eco

It should be a law that bad books should be small, so that those who insist, foolishly, on finishing every book they start, are not subjected to the trauma of spending weeks or months in the company of bad books. Alas, it is not so. Credo, by Melvyn Bragg, is a very poor book. It is about nine hundred pages long, and I don't think I enjoyed a single one of them. Baudolino, by Umberto Eco, is a slender five hundred pages long, but by the time I reached the end I was fuming, and wondering if I could scrape together the monies to go to Italy and through the book in Eco's face.

One reason I am so annoyed is that I had really high hopes for this novel. I thought the Name of the Rose was very good. I'm disposed to like Umberto Eco, because he's fantastically clever and not ashamed of it, and also because, as he is a semiotician, it would be easier - and hence less interesting - to dislike him.

Baudolino promised to be good. It is set int he Dark Ages, culminating with the sacking of Byzantium by the rabble of the Fourth Crusade. I like the 9so-called) Dark ages. I like tales of adventure and warfare, and this book promised this. I also like clever writers, and Eco is certainly clever.

The first chapter of Baudolino is fantastic. It is supposed to be the narrative of Baudolino, scrawled on parchemnt filched from his mentor. He has scrapped it clea of what was written on it, but imperfectly. Also, Baudolino, at this stage, is only semi-literate. So the opening chapter is confused and exhilarating, as we pick our way through the jumble of Latin fragments from the text that preceded Baudolino's, straining to catch the meaning of his erratic syntax and spelling. It is a treat. This, surely, is what clever Professors turned writers should be doing - showing us, in a playful way, what a delight the simple act of reading can be.

Unfortunately, after that fabulous opening gambit, Eco decides not to bother with the shambling prose of his peasant boy hero, and fast forwards to his dotage, where he recounts his life to Niketa, a Byzantium official recently rescued from maurading Crusaders. So out goes the teasing muddle of the opening chapter, and it is replaced by a very long, eventful tale, which is rendered lifeless by the bland and spiritless style in which it is told.

It shouldn't be like this. There are endless sieges, battles, a murder mystery, a quest, sex with fantastical creatures and parisian whores, debates about the nature of the world, faith, and enough major characters to populate a small Balkan country. But the flaw is the way in which the tale is told. It is like Eco used up all his energy in that first chapter, and after that can't be bothered trying to make the subsequent tale challenging, or even interesting. One is tempted to speculate that he dreamed up the idea for the opening chapter, then had to come up with a story to append to it.

It might seem odd to accuse the author of a five hundred page book of 'Can't be arsed-ness' but Baudolino often feels like Eco can not be bothered with his story. Scenes and events seem to bore him, so he trundles on another dramatic happening to see if that one will be more amusing. it isn't, so along comes another, and another. Soon, one realises, a lot of stuff is happening, but nothing important is occurring. The treatment of Baudolino's wife is an example. She is introduced on page 228. By page 231 she is dead. We've barely had time to learn her name, and she is out of the book. In between, she hasn't had time to develop as a character, so we don't feel much sorrow at her passing, so the references Baudolino makes to her lack emotional power.

A lot of the problems of the book lie in the style of writing. This is a serious charge to level at a semiotician. But the writing is balnd and uninteresting. Some of it is told in the first person past tense, some in the third person, but neither perspective has impact, interest or tension. Sometimes, it gets plain careless. On an epic quest, the companions confront many dangers. Here is how one of them is described:
At midnight, as the men were thinking they might get some sleep, crested serpents arrived, each with two or three heads. With their tails they swept the ground and they kept their jaws wide open, with in which three tongues darted. Their stink was perceptible at a mile's distance, and all had the impression that their eyes, which sparkled in the lunar light, spread poison, as for that matter, the basilisk does ...
There are several problems here. First of all, the passage is boring. An encounter with giant serpents at night should be terrifying to read, not bland. People should be yelling, all our senses should be used to convey the intensity of combat. Apparently, however, no-one even bothered to utter a word during the skirmish. Second, there is little description. What do the serpents smell like? Burning tyres? Sewers? Boiled cabbage? Third, Eco forgets one of the first rules of creative writing - show, don't tell. How do the companions discover the serpents are mutli-headed, multi-tongued, and possessed of a lethal gaze? The description above reads more like a cargo dispatch. DELIVERY: One dozen triple headed serpents, stinking. Fianlly, Eco presents the information in the wrong order. The first thing that the companions would have become aware of was the smell. Then perhaps the sound of things moving in the darkness. The they might see something moving in the shadows, then the realisation that they were confronting something unnatural and terrifying. Now, imagine this encounter is one of several, each recounted in the same bland style, each offerring no hope that this one will be the last. At one point, Eco indicates he has tried to use different voices in the writing:
As he [Baudolino] had been tender and pastoral in telling of Abdul's death, so now he was epic and majestic in reporting the fording of that river.
Only, there is no noticable difference in tone between different sections. The whole book, apart from the excellent first chapter, is told in the same monotonous voice, as far as this reader can judge.

The book is very long, and through out it is written in a boring style devoid of drama and interest. the characters are unappealing and the polt, though straining for epic qualities, is boring. Read (or as I intend to, re-read) The Name of the Rose, which is a much better book than this.

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