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Mridusmita Deka|May 29, 2023
Can someone please explain Baudolino to me? A young man leads a Byzantine nobleman to safety during the chaos of the second crusade and then….what? No idea. I’m not even sure what would help me understand barring the utter indignity of consulting some study guide. How many books do I have to read, how strong a grasp of medieval European history and philosophy will I need before I get it? Any of it?
I had been working up to Baudolino for a decade. I read Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before years ago in college, days when I knew how to use words like “epistemology” in a sentence. In the throes of lit-crit fervour, I thought I understood it. I read The Name of the Rose next and found it even more accessible.
Foucault’s Pendulum is where the grip started slipping. I find Eco difficult in general. Reading him is like looking at a landscape with patchy clouds hanging overhead. Large parts are dulled by incomprehension; but for some pages – or moments, to keep the analogy going – the clouds part, bathing the scene in brilliant light. Not in Baudolino. Full darkness. The clouds don’t part at all.
I wasn't always easily threatened by books. I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in high school – less an act of precocious reading than physics-avoidance. I was a deeply-reluctant science student and had substituted my gigantic textbooks with equally fat doses of Russian realism. So what if I was flunking maths, physics, chemistry, biology? I was still a SEEKER AFTER KNOWLEDGE. My school librarian as well as my mother had warned me the book was “difficult” but I wasn’t deterred. Dostoyevsky, I’d manage; it was KL Chugh who terrified me.
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I plodded through it for three months – the experience increasingly feeling like an endurance test – until I finished and knew who had killed the father and why Dmitri carried an incense bag around. That, I have to admit, was immensely satisfying. I moved on to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina which was an easier read. These contributed to my general confidence that I could read difficult books and understand enough to face potential quizzes.
That confidence was dashed in my first year of college. At the end of year-one, I picked up James Joyce’s Ulysses. Once again, I was warned but didn’t listen. I started reading and kept going at a fairly respectable clip until I realised I had read 140 pages. I was very impressed with myself. Before starting on the 141st, I decided to have a celebratory recap. One of those three-second things where you cast your mind back on all that has happened so far. I did my casting and…drew a blank. What happened over the first 140 pages? Not a clue. Leopold Bloom in Dublin…..something, something, something. I didn’t have the heart or energy to re-read those 140 pages. I closed the book and set it back on my shelf where it dwells to this day, with the bookmark at page 140, a lasting reminder of my defeat.
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I got a bit ruthless after that, leaving books partially read all over the place. I wrote postgraduate exams in Renaissance literature without reading a word of Spencer or Sidney (frightful bore), modern literature without reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (again, Joyce) and linguistics, without reading anything at all.
So, why did a repeat book-abandoner like me persist with Baudolino long after it was apparent that I would never understand what was going on and that it was best for my mental health and appetite to drop it? The answer is Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem.
It’s an utterly weird book. In the first half, nothing by way of action or plot development happens. Practically every bit of dialogue is simultaneously a speech or sermon on the ways of herders and wolves. The plot moves at a glacial pace and the same beliefs and ideas are constantly recapitulated like in epics. But I kept reading because the synopsis on the back promised a wolf cub and I thought there would at least be some cute moments and I wanted to see what would happen.
Then the wolf cub appears. From this point, the plot starts galloping ahead. The first few hundred pages of infuriating exposition make the landscape, the people, the wolves, the beliefs and habits, so familiar that, as the plot hurtles toward its unspeakably tragic end, every loss feels personal. The simplicity of the narrative only heightens that sense of utter desolation. I read the final few pages through a film of moisture – reading a few lines, closing the book to weep, regaining composure, and repeating that cycle until the last word. I have never wanted to abandon a book as much as I did this one and I’ve never been so thankful for talking myself out of it.
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Ever since, I’ve been reluctant to close books that don’t hook me in in the first few dozen pages. I keep going, just in case they have a smashing second act. I’m sure some readers had the same experience with Baudolino. I haven’t met anyone who did but I’m sure they exist.
In consequence, I don’t really stop reading a book any more. I take breaks. Sometimes those breaks stretch to months, sometimes years, but I tell myself I will go back to them. I will go back to War and Peace. I started reading in the summer of 2021 and am now on Book 9 Chapter 9.
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