Baudolino by Umberto Eco – Audiobook Review

Baudolino is a unique book for me. It’s not just a fantastic story about the quest for the holy grail wrapped around a murder mystery, it’s a book narrated by Baudolino, a liar, who in weaving his web of lies, he reveals truths about himself and the human condition.

Baudolino was written by Umberto Eco in 2003 and to me, it’s best described as Forest Gump goes to the medieval ages. It’s a story of emperors squaring off against Popes with Italy being the chessboard for their politics. All the while, Baudolino weaves such magnificent tall tales to prevent the destruction of cities and inspire a new holy crusade with the Holy Grail as the centerpiece.

As you can tell, it’s quite an epic story woven with both the gritty realism of medieval Europe intermixed with the fantastical beasts of imagination of the day.

It’s also my favorite book of all time.

The Story

The book starts with Baudolino, the titular character, saving the famous medieval historian, Niketas Choniates, during the sack of Constantinople. Throughout the book, both Baudolino and Niketas work to escape the doomed city. During moments of calm, Baudolino tells his life story, and it is quite a tale!

King Frederick Barbarosa

Baudolino was raised in a shack in the woods in the Italian countryside. One day he meets a strange man on horseback who is lost in the fog. Baudolino brings the stranger back to his home whereby his family shelters him from the elements. Except he’s no ordinary person. He’s Frederick Barbarossa, King of Germany who would later become the Great Holy Roman Emperor.

Frederick is quite taken with Baudolino as the boy invents a story of being visited by Saint Baudolino, declaring victory for Frederick in a coming battle. The king takes Baudolino to the soon-to-be battle so that Baudolino may share his prophecy with the priests. Baudolino plays the part to the hilt, even falling into a seizure before both armies. The battle is called off with allegiance sworn to Frederick without a drop of blood.

Thus Frederick takes Baudolino back to his palace and raises him as his adoptive son and leading Baudolino on a series of adventures that leads to the Holy Grail itself and to the famous mythical kingdom of Prester John.

The Greatest of Liars

My introduction to the book might have raised some eyebrows. It’s like me telling the story about how I gave shelter to the President of the United States. For you see, Baudolino is an epic liar. When Niketas confronts Baudolino about it, Baudolino happily agrees. He’s a liar, yet, but he never uses his lies to hurt people. For Baudolino, his lies are like his superpower. He uses them all for good. So he claims.

Baudolino joins the court and he is taught how to read and write. He soon learns of Prester John – a priest who runs a fabled Christian kingdom lost to the ages. Baudolino’s beloved instructor, on his deathbed, asks Baudolino to seek out this priest. Baudolino keeps the promise, but first, he needs to receive a real education.

This book even includes a telling of the gnostic gospel

Eventually, Frederick sends Baudolino to Paris for a proper education. There Baudolino meets his friends. He meets a sad depressed soul named Abdul who searches for his lost love who only exists in his drugged visions. Baudolino befriends another man he simply calls The Poet who is so bad at writing poetry that Baudolino writes it for him. Along with several others, the small group drinks deep of Paris’ earthly pleasures all while, the kingdom of Prester John hangs over all their thoughts.

In time, Baudolino returns to the court and gets wound up in its politics. Frederick, hoping to gain increase his influence, decides to seek Prester John and offer him the greatest gift. That is, it is the gift of the Holy Grail. Baudolino tells Frederick that he recovered it from a drunken templar returning from the Holy Land. The truth, of course, is much different and very bittersweet.

At about this time, a tragic event occurs. A central character is murdered in his room which appears to be the result of poison. The grail is stolen and the murder hangs over the entire group. The group thinks they know the killer, but the truth has far greater implications than Baudolino and his friends can ever imagine.

The Kingdom of Prester John

With the grail stolen, Baudolino figures the murderer is rushing the kingdom of Prester John. Baudolino and his friends seek to capture the killer on their own but the killer is too clever for them. After a swift chase, Baudolino loses the trail in the mountains.

Instead of blindly searching, the group decides to seek out Prester John on their own in hopes of catching the killer when he arrives. This is where the book switches from the gritty medieval life to the tales of the fantastic.

As they travel to the mythical kingdom, the band fights strange creatures, they cross a river of moving stones, and they even encounter a tribe of people who only exist in the dark.

The mythical Prester John looms over the whole story

Eventually, they arrive at the outskirts of the kingdom filled with strange creatures. There Baudolino learns of the followers of Hypatia, learns the philosophy of Gnostic Gospels, and manages to fall in love. Everything seems perfect until the tides of war fall on the group.

I won’t say what happens – but it’s a tale full of twists and turns that leads Baudolino to meet Niketas and ultimately, the meaning of truth.

The Audiobook

George Guidall is a top-tier narrator

The audiobook is narrated by George Guidall. Guidall is simply amazing. There are so many characters in this book that Guidall breathes to life. Guidall manages to give each of them a distinctive voice. It’s just incredible. I can skip to a certain place in the book, and I’ll have no doubts about who is speaking.

Also, his pronunciation of Italian and Latin is just on point. Mind you, I can’t say that it is accurate, but Guidall speaks with conviction and he just sounds authentic. His whole performance comes across as genuine and authoritative.

Guidall is one of those top-tier narrators who simply elevate the source material. In summation, he makes an already excellent book that much better. I actually own a hard copy of the book, but I can’t see myself reading it. I’d miss Guidall’s company.

Verdict

I’ve read a bunch of Umberto Eco books and I generally find his work very thoughtful but overly dense. While this book does have its moments (especially with the arguments of vacuum), it’s a brilliant story with a main character who just speaks to my heart.

I first read this book in 2003 and loved it. I recently read it again, almost twenty years later, and I didn’t think I’d be moved by it as I was. The last chapter almost brought down tears in so much as I didn’t want the story to end. And I still don’t.

Verdict: 🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆 (5 / 5)
Just an amazing story of high adventure that explores the meaning of “truth” as well as the contours of the human heart. A beautiful tale of honesty told by a liar.

Baudolino at Amazon / Audible (affiliate link)

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