The Good Liar

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Don't be concerned that the hero of Umberto Eco's beguiling and exasperating new novel is a cheerful liar. As Eco sees it, the universe is nothing but a sparkling tissue of lies. As for the thing we call knowledge — of ourselves, one another, the world at large — it's mostly a matter of which illusions we choose to believe.

In Baudolino (Harcourt; 522 pages), the grandest illusion of all is history, that supreme confection of myths and misunderstandings. Quite a few of them, it turns out, can be laid at the feet of Eco's resourceful Baudolino, a 12th century adventurer with a gift for fabrications that settle into the historical record. A peasant's son, the young Baudolino is brought under the loving protection of Frederick, the Holy Roman Emperor known to history as Barbarossa. As a grown man, Baudolino persuades the Emperor to give up trying to subdue the restive city-states of Italy and to journey instead to the Far Eastern realm of Prester John, a mythical Christian King. After Frederick dies (history says he drowned, but Eco has a more complicated explanation), Baudolino and friends continue in search of Prester John's realm.

But it's a long road, and the story bogs down. Eco comes up with one-legged creatures, manticores and other literary special effects, but none that make this lengthy book as much brainy fun as The Name of the Rose, his wizardly first novel. "I'll tell you more about him," Baudolino promises at one point about Prester John. "Maybe even too much." Now that observation is indisputably true.