A complete study of the techniques Eco uses in The Island of the Day Before would have to be as long as the novel itself. Even a quick survey of a few of the narratorial ploys, however, suggests the remarkable qualities of Eco's third novel.
Like The Name of The Rose (1980), The Island of the Day Before is presented as if it Were based on a recently-discovered manuscript. The modern narrator takes on much more responsibility this time, since the papers Roberto left on board the Daphne constitute a narrative full of gaps. Indeed, they were never conceived as a connected story, unlike Adso's confessions. With much show of diffidence, the modern narrator conjecturally fills in the gaps and pieces together the tale. By this method, Eco succeeds in evoking Roberto's seventeenth-century sensibility, while the modern narrator intervenes to supply background and clarification.
This dual narrative is especially appropriate because Eco emphasizes the continuity between the two periods. Another technique he uses to this end might be called apparent anachronism. He startles us by portraying men of three hundred fifty years ago speculating on atomic theory, or entrusting their lives to diving gear. Even Roberto's delusion — that he will be able to travel back in time if he can reach the island and cross the line into the day before — calls to mind one of the persistent themes of twentieth-century science fiction: time travel....
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Like his earlier novels, Eco's most recent work evokes the past in accurate and exhaustive detail, and its historical insights provide numerous topics for conversation. The philosophical and scientific problems which the characters find so compelling still matter, and Eco's framing of the questions could lead to unusually productive discussions. The important fictional and historical figures in the book are intriguing singly and in the combinations Eco arranges. Finally the ambiguities of the last pages should provoke spirited debates.
1. What really caused Roberto's eye problems? What really cured them?
2. Why does Eco fill the Daphne with plants and animals? What significance do they have for Roberto? Do they have different meanings for us from those that they have for the characters?
3. What does Roberto learn from his experiences during the siege of Casale? What exactly is it about war that disturbs him?
4. What do you make of Father Immanuel's machine, the "Aristotelian Spyglass"? Does it offer genuine insights, or merely superficially impressive arrangements of words? Does it represent an individual's quirkiness, or a general tendency of the age?
5. Does Eco expect us to believe in the miracle cures supposedly produced by the Weapon Salve? Judging by its curative power and other mysterious properties, what is the symbolic value of this substance?
6. Why can't Roberto talk to women?...
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Eco's recondite fiction seems to have little to do with social concerns, as most would define the term. He writes of characters and issues apparently remote; yet it would require no great ingenuity to find many comments directly relating to contemporary problems in The Island of the Day Before, Eco examines the literary and philosophical issues that interest him, no doubt reasoning that questions as to how we perceive the world and how we communicate with one another are even more fundamental than economics or politics.
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Clearly, any tale of shipwreck and isolation in the Western tradition calls to mind such precedents as Homer's The Odyssey (1050-850 B.C) and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Eco knows that, and he pays several tributes to earlier works, most obviously in the mysterious footprint Roberto spots on the Daphne before he has met Caspar Wanderdrossel face to face. With its resident menagerie, the ship also recalls Noah's Ark, and Eco devotes a number of brilliant passages to exploring the associations. One could go on listing sources and precedents for many pages. There is no more self-consciously literary author writing today than Umberto Eco; in a sense, all that he has read serves as a precedent for his fiction, and he often seems to have read everything.
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Eco's others novels, including his second work,
(1988), have many features in common with The Island of the Day Before. Also, his voluminous writings on literature and semiotics are well worth consulting by readers who wish to gain deeper insight into his fiction.
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