(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Umberto Eco’s earlier novels were the work of a semiotician who refused to suspend his scholarly proclivities while invading the field of fiction. Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983) was a sort of mystery. Unlike the off-duty performances of scholars such as Dorothy Sayers and J. I. M. Stewart (otherwise Michael Innes), who delighted their fans with the frequently recurring adventures in crime of engaging sleuths such as Lord Peter Wimsey and Sir John Appleby, educated gentlemen who occasionally but only lightly imposed their learning on the reader, Eco’s was a tense—and dense—narrative that seemed to expect the reader to be as much of a theologian and Aristotelian as the learned monks of the monastery of Melk where the novel was set. It turned out to be a phenomenon of the modern book-publishing business: an erudite, intellectually challenging best-seller.

The second novel, Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; Foucault’s Pendulum, 1990), also erudite if less successful, made it clear that Eco was no fictional flash in the pan, and The Island of the Day Before reflects his continuing confidence in the existence and cooperation of the educated general reader. This time Eco evokes the European world of the earlier seventeenth century, with its petty wars, its imperialistic competitions in little-known stretches of the globe, its seamless web of learning and ignorance, and its indulgent literary conventions—all from a late twentieth century perspective. The book is not precisely a satire, but it burlesques many idiosyncrasies of both centuries.

At the beginning of the novel, Roberto della Griva, having been tossed by a storm into the Pacific Ocean on a makeshift raft, finds himself at length floating near a ship at anchor and manages to climb a rope ladder to its deck. It is the Daphne, a Dutch trading vessel that has been abandoned by its crew a mile west of a South Pacific island, which he subsequently determines lies barely east of the 180th meridian. Exactness about this location is not to be expected; it would be more than two centuries before nations agreed on Greenwich, England, as marking the prime meridian. The point is that Roberto is straddling the line between today and yesterday. Aboard the Daphne it must of course be today, while on the island it is still presumably yesterday. Reflections on this phenomenon (and Roberto is nothing if not reflective) exert a paralysis of will on a man hardly notable for purposeful action in the first place.

After Roberto manages to clamber up the rope ladder, his makeshift raft floats away, and it occurs to him that he may be the first man “to have been shipwrecked and cast up upon a deserted ship.” There is evidence of a recent outbreak of the plague aboard, but no bodies; the crew appears to have abandoned ship in the longboat, which is missing. Roberto cannot swim and cannot conceive of any contrivance that might bring him to the shore a mile away. His eyesight has been damaged by a war wound, and he finds it convenient to sleep days and do most of his exploring of the ship in the dawn and twilight hours.

Gradually, through Roberto’s uneasy dreams and waking recollections, the circumstances that have brought him here come to light. Eco alternates accounts of Roberto’s past life with his hero’s extremely deliberate explorations of the Daphne. Almost from the start he is more interested in composing laments to Lilia, an idealized version of a young woman whom he met in Paris, than he is in coming to terms with present reality. Eventually he discovers that he is not alone on the ship, but whether he shares it with an Other who is a disreputable aspect of himself or with a fellow exile he cannot immediately determine.

Compared to a psychological adventure story such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, Eco’s novel is more complex but less sober. The author has much fun displaying Roberto’s schizophrenic potentiality—to the point that the reader begins to wonder whether he does have an objective enemy. His encounter, halfway through the novel, with a shrewd but comically conceived German Jesuit huddled in a previously unexplored nook of the ship by no means ends Roberto’s tussle with his mean-spirited Other, whose name is Ferrante.

Eco also plays with the conventions of the romance. Roberto is less a romantic hero than a young man obsessed, and consequently unnerved, by romantic conventions that he has imbibed from both literary and social sources. He fantasizes about the unattainable island. He composes verses to Lilia swarming with the clichés of...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)