Our first impression of Baudolino, the quick-witted, good-hearted Italian peasant in Umberto Eco's new novel, comes from a piece of parchment on which he attempted, in the year 1154, at age 14, to set down his life story. "From the cabinet of the Bishop Oto I have stollen many pages," he writes, "and I have scraped clean almost all of them excepting where the writing would not come off et now I have much parchmint to write down what I want which is my own story even if I don't know to write Latin."
Although conspicuously lacking the more refined literary skills, young Baudolino has a knack for picking up languages: "Since I was a little pup if someboddy say just quinkue five V words I could do their talk right off."
Charmed as we may be by this specimen of the young Baudolino's macaronic writing style, it's a relief to discover that the rest of his story is told in standard modern English (or standard modern Italian deftly rendered into English by William Weaver). Baudolino's gift for languages and his engaging personality bring him to the attention of the German-born Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who is trying to subdue the unruly cities of northern Italy. Before long, Baudolino becomes something like the emperor's adopted son. He's sent to study in Paris, where he makes lifelong friends, including a wild-eyed poet who can't actually write poetry and a lovesick Arab who can.
The late 12th century is a turbulent age: Rival popes dispute each other's claim of legitimacy; Crusaders keep trying to wrest Jerusalem from the Saracens; and internecine court intrigue plagues Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Christian empire. As a member of Frederick's entourage, Baudolino has not only witnessed all kinds of power struggles, military and diplomatic, he has also sometimes been able - thanks to his knack for inventive lying - to influence events for the better.
One of Baudolino's most far-fetched inventions was a letter purportedly written by the legendary Christian priest-king of the Indias, Prester John. Fired by the idea of meeting this mythical figure and seeing his legendary realm, Baudolino, his friends, and the emperor set out for the fabled East.