cover image BAUDOLINO


Umberto Eco, , trans. from the Italian by William Weaver. . Harcourt, $27 (528pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100690-8

In this now annual feature, PW takes a look at BEA's most talked-about books and weighs in to let readers know whether they measure up to the hopes and the hype.

FictionBAUDOLINOUmberto Eco, trans. from the Italian by William Weaver. Harcourt, $27 (528p) ISBN 0-15-100690-3

In another grand mythical epic, Eco transports readers to the medieval Italy of The Name of the Rose (though almost two centuries earlier), where Frederick Barbarossa seeks to establish himself as the Holy Roman emperor. The story begins in 1204, as the Byzantium capital of Constantinople is sacked and Baudolino, the adoptive son of Frederick, recounts his life to Byzantine historian Niketas, whom he has just saved from the barbaric Latins. Unfolding amid religious conspiracy theories and mysticism, the narrative, which builds slowly, follows the life of Baudolino, an Italian peasant boy who fabricates stories he realizes people want to believe in. While studying in Paris, Baudolino meets several friends from all over the world, who together divulge their intimate dreams and share their desire to discover distant places. Two decades later, Baudolino calls together his friends to embark on what will be a lifelong journey to find Prester John, the Christian priest of the East, whose fabled reputation Baudolino has helped create. Eco seems to loosen the reins when the friends set out across unknown territories, where they grope through an eternally dark forest; traverse a river of stones and boulders; and encounter such mythical creatures as the sled-footed skiapods, dog-headed cynocephali and the Hypatia, beautiful sirens with the legs of goats. While the pilgrims are aware, to a certain extent, of Baudolino's truth-stretching, they all come to believe in their search, as does Baudolino himself. Eco builds his story upon light theological and historical debates, though fiction and history are more evenly balanced than in his previous book, The Island of the Day Before, making for a more engaging read. While this book lacks the suspense of The Name of the Rose, it is nevertheless a spirited story that might offer those previously daunted by his writing a more accessible entrée. (Oct. 15)

Forecast:The marketing equivalent of trumpets ($400,000 worth) herald this latest novel from Eco (who will tour five cities). Already a bestseller in Europe, and issued here in a first printing of 400,000, Baudolino is sure to follow the course of Eco's previous three novels.