The Name of the Pose

Umberto Eco fills another 500 pages with Baudolino.


Umberto Eco

Secker and Warburg, 2002

521 pages

Descartes once wrote something to the effect that 10,000 monkeys, given 10,000
years, pen and paper, would eventually write Virgil’s Aeneid – line for line,
word for word. Jorge Luis Borges amended this remark. All that is required, he
proposed, is one immortal monkey and an eternity in which to write. Around page
10 of Baudolino, Umberto Eco’s new novel, one begins to suspect something. By
page 120, it is confirmed: Umberto Eco is that monkey.

The weighty names of long-dead kings and viziers, the evocations of exotic locales,
the palimpsesting of magic and religion, the obscured outlines of myth and legend
– Eco’s stock in trade – these all seem like the lice and grubs he has picked
from the backs of other monkeys, other writers. He picks them from their matted
fur and examines them. He dangles them over his gaping mouth; the grubs writhe
and squirm. Then he eats them and digests. Baudolino is the shit that comes out
the other end – loose and watery. It is the last semiotic shovel of excrement
from the floor of the writer’s monkey house.

Baudolino, the eponymous hero, is an Italian peasant, a linguist and a liar. One
day, an average day for the early 13th century, he meets the Emperor Frederick
Barbarossa (who you might remember from such exciting events as the Fourth Crusade)
in the middle of a deep, dark, and near-mythical woods. Baudolino is adopted by
the emperor, who sends him to a new place named a “University” where he meets
up with some other rag-tag students. Then – you guessed it – they all go out in
search of the mystical kingdom of Prester John, a place (over)populated with monsters
and whatever else Eco read the night before writing the page. The narrative is
random, an agglomeration of characters separated by spaces and punctuation marks.
Sometimes, characters, meaning people, show up: Zosimos, Ardzrouni, Niketas, Boiamondo,
Pevere, Theophilus. These characters say things like, “After the envoys from the
Seljuks and the Armenians, your Isaac gave us the ships. And it was, in fact,
at Gallipolis, which you people call Kallioupolis that I saw you, when in the
name of your basileus, you offered us the vessels.”

Who? What? Where? Huh? Immate-rial. The essential question is, Why?

Why? Because Eco is Eco. Because he can.

Umberto Eco and monkeys are intelligent, that much can be scientifically proven.
Science, however, is not sure whether monkeys, or any animals for that matter,
possess what we humans define as imagination. Eco doesn’t. The Name of the
and Foucault’s Pendulum were feverish exercises in compendious
erudition that failed miserably as genuinely creative works of art. Baudolino
is unimaginably worse.

It must be tough to be the smartest monkey in the monkey house. The keeper-critics
fear you; you speak to them in their language and yet they can’t understand you.
You know the feeding times, you’re insulted by the tire swing, people gape at
you. Given a few different spins of the evolutionary wheel, you know that they’d
be sitting behind the Plexiglas instead of you.

There is one comforting thought. It is feasible that Umberto Eco as the eternal
monkey, given infinite time, will one day swing our way with a good novel. That
in mind, his keepers are keeping him in paper and pens. Someone get a banana.

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