Catching the Prester John Bug

John Mullan

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.

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