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Catching the Prester John BugJohn Mullan

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Vol. 25 No. 9 · 8 May 2003

Catching the Prester John Bug

John Mullan

by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.
Secker, 522 pp., £18, October 2002, 0 436 27603 8
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Somewhere in the skirts of the fabled land of Prester John, late in the 12th century, Baudolino, the protagonist of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, encounters a pygmy. He discovers that ‘the greeting to exchange with him was Lumus kelmin pesso desmar lon emposo, which means that you pledged not to make war against him and his people.’ Baudolino’s quickness with tongues is what has allowed him to prosper, or at least to survive. He has assured his companions that ‘unknown languages would create no problems, because when he had spoken with barbarians for a little while, he learned to speak as they did.’

There is much in this novel about languages, in particular about the way vernaculars and dialects fight it out with the timeless verities of medieval Latin and the arcane subtleties of Byzantine Greek. Baudolino, an opportunist of humble origins, is gifted in dialect and colloquialism, but must learn to survive in an internationally Latinate culture. The novel begins, as if it is going to be a first-person narrative, with Baudolino measuring his stumbling, unpunctuated, erratically spelled vernacular against the eternal Latin that rears up towards him. Learned Latinisms even crop up on the page we are reading, which is, we find, one of the pieces of vellum that the writer has purloined from the Imperial Chancellor and scraped clean of most of its original characters. In among the sentences are the curses and commands of invading Teutons. In William Weaver’s translation there is a hint of Molesworth – the young cynic is just getting by in Latin culture, his canniness a substitute for learning.

Yet in that greeting to the pygmies Eco has encoded a knowing little allusion. No doubt there were many literary jests in this novel that passed me by – the suspicion that one is not getting everything, the vague impression of learned plenty, is one that Eco cleverly fosters. But this pygmy phasis I did recognise. It is the Lilliputian sentence memorised and later transcribed by that great language-learner and antecedent to Baudolino, Lemuel Gulliver. In Part I of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver tells us that he was taught Lilliputian by the Emperor himself and that ‘the first words I learned were to express my desire that he would please to give me my liberty.’ Quite an ambitious opener. His Majesty’s reply is ‘that first I must lumos kelmin pesso desmar lon emposo; that is, swear a peace with him and his kingdom’. An o has become a u in transliteration, but Eco has found an apt use for Swift’s nonsense language. He points to what he is doing by telling us a few sentences later that the blemmyae (fantastic beings whose heads grow beneath their shoulders) call a horse a ‘houyhmhmm’. It is one letter away from the name of the talking horses in Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels.

This is, in part, one of those Eco jokes (fresh in The Name of the Rose, less fresh here) about the way antique-seeming fictions are put together by purloining elements of more recent works. It also draws attention to what is most incredible in Gulliver’s account, and implicitly in Baudolino’s, too: the confidence in their ability to understand strange new languages. Gulliver’s is founded on a proud, absurd empiricism: words must match universal ideas. For Baudolino, it is stranger: new languages must tell of universal beliefs and stories. The land of Prester John, where his journey tends, is the place where beliefs and stories, superstitions and wonderful fables, have their origin. Here will be found the phoenix and Sinbad, the lost tribes of Israel and the perfect Christian state. Yet Eco is also showing us that the account of Baudolino’s travels and discoveries is like that of Gulliver’s: an impossible tale that tells of where the traveller comes from, not where he has gone to.

We even get an accurately Gulliverian passage in which Baudolino describes the natural and religious history of his own land, made to sound as fantastic as any traveller’s tale.

I listed for him the wondrous animals of my country . . . the cuckoo, who lays her eggs in the nests of other birds; the owl, whose round eyes in the night seem two lamps and who lives eating the oil of lamps in churches; the hedgehog, its back covered with sharp quills, who sucks the milk of cows; the oyster, a living jewel box that sometimes produces a dead beauty but of inestimable value.

To make his listener less unhappy about the inaccessibility to him of these wonders, Baudolino also catalogues contemporary human horrors, varieties of violence and illness, and the many terrible ends of saints, including some that he invents: ‘Saint Sarapion, flayed, Saint Mopsuestius, his four limbs bound to four horses, cracked and then quartered, Saint Dracontius, forced to swallow boiling pitch’.

The place Baudolino seeks is a land made out of writings, where every tall story is verified. The early medieval world is one in which the stories you make up, the traveller’s tales you fake, will come true. Baudolino and his friends believe that their imaginations are shaped to fit the world. God has made it so. Stories are not endlessly individual, but follow the lines of necessity. Baudolino and his friends write a letter to the Holy Roman Emperor purporting to be from Prester John, in which he describes his fabulous realm, the extent of his rule and invites the Emperor to visit. They populate this kingdom with every strange beast they have never seen (‘panthers, onagers, white and red lions, mute cicadas, gryphons, tigers’) and with varieties of men spoken of in legends (‘horned men, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, cynocephali, giants forty cubits tall’). They make it a land of fabulous wealth and universal virtue. They spend months amending and improving the letter. Yet they also believe in their fiction. They are like Milton with Paradise, filling with aspiring language a space that they know must be there. Baudolino and his ‘cronies’ finally decide that perhaps they should travel to the ‘rich and miraculous land’ that they have imagined.

Eco has not invented all this, or not entirely. The story of Prester John was one of the great myths of medieval Europe. A letter like the one that Baudolino and friends fabricate did exist and, via many transcriptions and altered versions, it popularised the myth of an all-powerful Christian ruler of a huge, wealthy realm in the East. The letter was in circulation, in Latin, by the 1170s, and many various manuscript copies of it survive. It is addressed to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel, and invites him to the land of its author, Prester John, who declares that he will soon be coming from the East with a huge army to rescue the Holy Sepulchre for Christianity. The letter-writer describes some of the fabulous elements of his realm (most of which duly turn up in this novel), including salamanders, stones that can make a man invisible and forests of pepper plants. There is something of Borges about it. Among Prester John’s subjects are the ten lost tribes of Israel, but there are no poor, no thieves, no adulterers. He lives in a fabulous palace, described in opulent detail, but is surrounded by priests and bishops, as well as the kings and nobles whom he commands. He ends: ‘If thou canst count the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea, judge the vastness of our realm and our power.’

Scholars have tracked down many of the literary sources from which this fake was cobbled together by some anonymous cleric. Eco has Baudolino and some fellow students make it up – but perhaps he would say that his is a novel that shows imaginings to be literary even when they are unconscious of being so. There seems to be little agreement on the purpose of the forgery. Some have argued that it is a utopian fiction, presenting a holy realm in order to chasten the endlessly warring Christians of the West. Yet it seems altogether stranger than this, which must have been part of its appeal to Eco. It is full of gratuitous invention: the men with heads of dogs who are good fishermen because they can stay submerged in the sea all day; the birds whose eggs return those suffering lassitude to vigour; the tree of life guarded by a nine-headed serpent that sleeps only on St John’s day. It was widely believed that Prester John was indeed ruling Christians, probably in India, and intrepid travellers tried to seek him out. He began turning up in accounts of imaginary voyages, including Mandeville’s Travels. There are many medieval maps on which Prester John’s domain is confidently located.

This has been Eco’s materia poetica for a work that mingles genres with gusto, but perhaps also with abandon. It seems sometimes to be shaping up as a Bildungsroman. At the beginning, somewhere in the Italian woods, 14-year-old Baudolino meets a German knight in the fog. He takes him home and feeds him, and discovers the next day that the knight is Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor himself. So his fortune is made. He gets educated. ‘What a great thing to be a man of learning,’ Baudolino exclaims as he ponders the story of how he came to acquire his education. Learning, we will find, fuels a man’s fantasy all the better.

Next, we are in Constantinople in April 1204, and Baudolino, now in his sixties, is telling the historian Niketas his story. Even as he speaks, the city is falling to its besiegers, the knights of the Fourth Crusade. Baudolino’s story involves many digressions concerning the habits of the Emperor and his Court. He is taught to be a copyist for Frederick’s uncle, the learned Bishop Otto. Otto was a pupil of Abelard (‘may God have mercy on this man who sinned greatly but also suffered and expiated’) and believes that he lives in ‘new times’, when ‘the man of learning’ is becoming more and more important. He is preoccupied with stories of the fabled realm of Presbyter Johannes, of Christian lands ‘beyond Baktu, Ecbatana, Persepolis, Susa, and Arbela’. (The real Otto of Freising included tales of Prester John in his compendious chronicles.)

On his death-bed, Otto recommends that Baudolino go to Paris to study rhetoric and theology; with his last breath, he tells him to remember ‘the kingdom of the Presbyter Johannes’ because ‘only in seeking it can the oriflammes of Christianity go beyond Byzantium and Jerusalem.’ Baudolino must ‘press Frederick to the East’, if necessary inventing news of the rumoured realm to tempt him there. He has found his man: Baudolino is a maker of fictions, ‘consecrated to falsehood’ as he himself begins to think. In a world without any concept of empirical verification, his inventions are licensed. His vocation is telling stories that are at least as alluring as the superstitions and legends that men already believe. And because of the power of human credulity, his stories have a way of coming true: ‘All the time you were inventing,’ he tells himself, ‘you invented things that were not true, but then became true.’

In Paris, where he is sent by the Emperor, now his adoptive father, he lives a student life with various odd companions. These include ‘the Poet’ (who cannot write poetry and relies on Baudolino to fake it for him), Abdul (who is half-Irish and introduces everyone to hallucinogenic drugs) and Kyot (who is drunk on Breton fairytales and the myth of the Holy Grail). As quirky medieval types they interest Eco, though as characters they hardly come to life. They all become preoccupied by the possible existence of Prester John, and set about writing their letter. When Baudolino returns to Frederick he further tests his powers of legend-making. As the Emperor’s forces demolish the rebellious city of Milan, Baudolino encounters a priest who shows him the uncorrupted bodies of the Magi. The mummified corpses are smuggled out by Frederick’s chancellor, Rainuld, who fancies them for his cathedral in Cologne, and Baudolino makes up their names and origins. The Magi, he tells Rainuld, must have come from the land of Prester John (though a little before that particular monarch’s time). Rainuld, too, gets the Prester John bug. This ‘fantasy of bookworms’ possesses courtiers and potentates. The most worldly medieval men cannot resist dreaming of the fabled land and its fabled godly monarch. Rumour implies that Prester John is in possession of the Holy Grail.

In Venice, a few years later, Baudolino and friends are shown another supposed letter from Prester John, remarkably like their own but different in the details. Baudolino realises that his composition has been copied, while he was drunk, by his acquaintance the monk Zosimos, whose gift for fabulation is even greater than his own. Soon the Pope, too, is faking a correspondence with Prester John. It is confirmed that he is in possession of the Holy Grail and Baudolino decides to season his fiction by arranging to have this very object sent from Prester John to Frederick. In fact, Baudolino supplies the Emperor with the wooden chalice clutched by his own father on his death-bed. Frederick, good at fighting but a simple man, is delighted with it.

From Zosimos they think they will extract a map that will guide them to the realm of Prester John. It is in his head, however, so they have to take him with them. They are diverted into accompanying Frederick on the Third Crusade. Somewhere in the Armenian mountains, Frederick is mysteriously killed while sleeping in a sealed, closely guarded room in a remote castle. What he supposed was the Grail has disappeared and Zosimos has fled. The company decide to travel straight to the land of Prester John, chasing, as they imagine, the Grail thief.

Now we are on enchanted ground, ‘encountering anthropophage hippopotami one day, and bats bigger than pigeons the next’, being attacked by the malodorous basilisk and the two-headed chimera. Baudolino and his comrades travel through the Abcasian forest of utter darkness and cross the Sambatyon, the terrifying river of stone. Finally they reach the land of Deacon John, son of Prester John, and are greeted by the friendly one-legged skiapod, who speaks rudimentary Greek. This section of the book – the fantastic journey as it has come down to us from medieval models and has survived hardily enough in the genres of fantasy and children’s literature, in Lord of the Rings or Narnia – has a certain self-sufficient charm. We are given, in Gulliverian style, an entertaining little parody of theological dispute and heresy, as the blemmyae, the headless beings with eyes in their chests, debate the nature of the Incarnation. We are supposed to be thinking that it is all Baudolino’s story, and therefore perhaps made up, but Eco has done rather little to lead us down this track and uses the notion merely to sanction his inventions.

Baudolino has a passionate love affair with a female satyr who lives in a wood with a sisterhood of female mystics and appears in the meadows in the company of a unicorn. But the terrible White Huns invade this happy land and Baudolino and his companions flee. After more adventures and vicissitudes, the survivors arrive back in Constantinople, carried on the backs of giant birds. There the remaining members of the now diminished company are finally brought together in a monastery crypt where the murderer of Frederick Barbarossa is unveiled and the mystery of the missing Grail solved. Suddenly, after so many wanderings, the narrative achieves purchase, with an Agatha Christie-style dénouement and an explanation that has a surprisingly wicked twist in its tail. But the preceding novel has not won sufficient interest in either Frederick’s mysterious death or the characters who might be responsible for it to make this corner worth turning. There are so many genres elbowing each other that it is difficult to respect the rules of any of them.

You could not quite call this historical fiction. The medieval world the novel portrays is almost entirely one of ideas and arguments and legends. Men are killed left, right and centre, but the violence is cartoonish. Even the mutilation and evisceration by the mob of Andronicus, ruler of Constantinople, described in considerable detail, is absurd rather than distressing. The wars between Frederick and the various city states of Lombardy are endless and endlessly confusing, and even Baudolino gets muddled at the many changes of allegiance. The fighting in the novel is largely comic. One long chapter consisting of the ruses undertaken by Baudolino to find a face-saving excuse for Frederick to abandon the siege of Alessandria is particularly farcical.

The characters, it seems, inhabit their medieval world with an anachronistic sense of its absurdity. When one of them lists all the sacred relics that are being stolen from Constantinople, we are in Blackadder territory. Two Christian knights, he says, ‘had taken, and not yet handed over, two heads of Saint John the Baptist’. (Much later, somewhere in Armenia, we will meet the man who expertly manufactures these heads.) As the city is ransacked, other duplications turn up: two crowns of thorns, two sponges that were held up to Christ on the Cross. Perhaps, one citizen ruminates, it is a blessing: the invaders will be so confused that they will leave all the relics behind. When Baudolino gets back from his travels and finds himself short of cash, he and his friends naturally turn to relic manufacture.

As in his earlier fiction, Eco lards this novel with learning. We hear of the design and dimensions of the Temple at Jerusalem, of debates about the existence or nonexistence of a vacuum, of medieval notions about the shape of the Earth. We are taken through the engaging heresies of the Nestorians and the Monophysites and the Donatists. There is esoteric vocabulary on almost every page: allodial, archimandrite, basileus, dromon, hetairai, hydromants, iconostasis, logothete, orpiment, schist. There is plenty of Latin, and a little Greek.

But is there plenitude here? Not really. There is no sense of a mental universe richly figured in symbols and stories. Eco’s intriguing bits and incredible pieces seem to belong to a world without depth. Despite the exotic diction, the language of the novel is oddly without qualities, since Eco soon backs off from the idea of having Baudolino narrate his own story. There is also a problem in the freedom the author permits himself to use any genre he wishes: the detective story and the imaginary voyage and the adventure story and the Bildungsroman are all toyed with. There is nothing like the success, and discipline, with which he combined a story of detection with a fantasy of learning in The Name of the Rose. Yet on the evidence of the ziggurats built from copies of Eco’s latest novel in large branches of Waterstone’s, he must be on to something. The learned novel is a strange thing, a contradiction in terms which thrives commercially. Like those medieval scholars and clerics who could not resist the jumbled tales of Prester John, we seem to have an appetite for arcana.

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