David Flusfeder’s novel John the Pupil has been repeatedly compared to Umberto Eco’s fiction. The similarity is definitely there. The story is about John, a young Franciscan monk in 1267 Oxford studying under the English philosopher Roger Bacon (Bacon also gets a couple of mentions in Name of the Rose if I remember rightly). John is tasked with making a pilgrimage to Viterbo, Italy, where the Pope is in residence. Once there, he is to present the Pope with Bacon’s magnum opus and demonstrate a device Bacon has also entrusted him with. The journey to Viterbo is the center of action for the plot; John or his companions must confront all the wonders and evils the road to Viterbo throws at them.
The story itself is in the form of a medieval manuscript written by John as he travels and translated by a modern day scholar. Like a medieval manuscript, the writing rambles (but always in a controlled way, which is impressive since being disorganized unintentionally is easy but doing so on purpose and making it believable is very hard), with apparently little thought to organization. The story is subdivided by Saints days; the stories of these saints John relates almost as bookends for the action.
One of the interesting things I find in historical fiction is the ways in which authors convey information about the time that the characters would already know but readers wouldn’t. For example, in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, one of Stephen Maturin’s roles is to give Jack Aubrey someone to explain the inter-workings of Napoleonic era sailing vessels for the benefit of readers who probably no nothing about them. To go back to Eco, in his work Baudolino (which, in my humble opinion, is one of the best works of historical fiction ever), he plows through the story explaining nothing about historical background. If you don’t know that the knights of the 4th crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204 that’s your problem. Flusfeder uses the fact that John and his fellow monks are innocents in the world to do this. They have lived their lives inside a monastery and as a result are as ignorant of the medieval world as we are. They can ask questions that the average character couldn’t. They can be amazed by things a medieval person would take for granted.
Where the book departs from the Ecoesque style is in it’s length and detail. Because it is written like a manuscript it can’t be too long. This work clocks in at a little over 200 pages. When I say it doesn’t have the historical detail of an Umberto Eco novel I don’t mean that as a slight. John the Pupil is full of the details of life on the road. He describes in great detail his fellow travelers and the places they pass through. It just doesn’t have the same level of historical detail as an Eco novel has. Still, if you like Eco or Luther Blissett (aka Wu Ming), you will enjoy John the Pupil.