Our first impression of Baudolino, the quick-witted, good-hearted Italian peasant in Umberto Eco's new novel, comes from a piece of parchment on which he attempted, in the year 1154, at age 14, to set down his life story. "From the cabinet of the Bishop Oto I have stollen many pages," he writes, "and I have scraped clean almost all of them excepting where the writing would not come off et now I have much parchmint to write down what I want which is my own story even if I don't know to write Latin."
Although conspicuously lacking the more refined literary skills, young Baudolino has a knack for picking up languages: "Since I was a little pup if someboddy say just quinkue five V words I could do their talk right off."
Charmed as we may be by this specimen of the young Baudolino's macaronic writing style, it's a relief to discover that the rest of his story is told in standard modern English (or standard modern Italian deftly rendered into English by William Weaver). Baudolino's gift for languages and his engaging personality bring him to the attention of the German-born Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who is trying to subdue the unruly cities of northern Italy. Before long, Baudolino becomes something like the emperor's adopted son. He's sent to study in Paris, where he makes lifelong friends, including a wild-eyed poet who can't actually write poetry and a lovesick Arab who can.
The late 12th century is a turbulent age: Rival popes dispute each other's claim of legitimacy; Crusaders keep trying to wrest Jerusalem from the Saracens; and internecine court intrigue plagues Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Christian empire. As a member of Frederick's entourage, Baudolino has not only witnessed all kinds of power struggles, military and diplomatic, he has also sometimes been able - thanks to his knack for inventive lying - to influence events for the better.
One of Baudolino's most far-fetched inventions was a letter purportedly written by the legendary Christian priest-king of the Indias, Prester John. Fired by the idea of meeting this mythical figure and seeing his legendary realm, Baudolino, his friends, and the emperor set out for the fabled East.
At this point, the novel enters a new imaginative dimension, as the travelers encounter exotic landscapes, fearsome monsters, and strange tribes. There are the gymnosophists, who manage to be benevolent, chaste, and peaceful without benefit of religion. "We do this to make up for the absence of any commandment," one explains.
The Abcasians inhabit a forest of total darkness, guided only by their feelings. Unable to see, they are so sensitive to sound and touch that traveling through their realm is like being bathed in an ocean of tenderness.
More problematic is the bizarre country just outside Prester John's kingdom, inhabited by a variety of Christian sects, each of which is considered heretical by the others, but must try to make common cause against a barbarous foe.
And then, in one of the novel's most enchanting sections, Baudolino meets and falls in love with a hypatia, one of a beautiful, wise, and gentle race of females who might perhaps be described as Gnostics: "We learn to become messengers between what is above and what is below," she explains. "We prove that the current in which God emanates himself can be retraced."
Eco's inventiveness as an allegorist and skill as an elucidator of philosophical concepts are matched by his vivid powers of description, splendidly reflected in Weaver's translation. Take, for example, this account of the Sambatyon, the legendary River of Stone, which must be crossed to get to Prester John's kingdom: "There were cataracts that plunged down from dozens of rocky eaves arranged like an amphitheater, into a boundless final vortex, an incessant retching of granite, an eddy of bitumen, a sole undertow of alum, a churning of schist, a clash of orpiment against the banks.... No human voice could make itself heard in that clangor, nor did the travelers have any desire to speak."
"Baudolino" is a richly rewarding novel, as satisfying as it is stimulating. War and peace, belief and skepticism, false dreams and true, the pleasures of storytelling, and the mysteries of love: Eco handles these themes with an exhilarating blend of profundity and lightness. Long though it is, this a novel that keeps getting better, gathering irresistible force as it sweeps toward its brilliantly inevitable conclusion.
• Merle Rubin reviews books for the Monitor and The Wall Street Journal.