The Island of the Day Before

by Umberto Eco

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1906

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 Renaissance sonnet sequences, but since he has no prospect of escaping his exile, she is even less likely than the usual fair sonnet lady ever to receive them. Though he has been thrust into situations calling for the action of a romantic hero—the siege of an Italian town, the intrigues of Parisian society, and finally the challenge of shipwreck—Roberto remains the attentive student, too thoroughly studious ever to arrive at the point of putting his lessons into practice.

By sheltering under a collapsed barricade, Roberto survived the siege of Casale, where a small force of Italians, led by his father, Pozzo di San Patrizio, were temporarily allied with French soldiers in an attempt to hold off a detachment of attacking Spaniards. Companions misinterpret his lucky survival as heroic endurance. Later, cowering behind a rampart, he is wounded by errant enemy fire instigated by Pozzo, who dies in a display of reckless bravado. Publicly praised but privately humiliated, Roberto attributes his shortcomings to the enmity of Ferrante. A Parisian friend named Saint-Savin, whom Roberto has met at the siege, explains to him that Ferrante is the embodiment of his fear and shame. Saint-Savin is only one example of Eco’s fondness for characters who adumbrate the theories of thinkers yet unborn.

Later still, as an ornament to Parisian society and the admirer of the fair Lilia, he discourses on the details of a pseudo-scientific Powder of Sympathy, which he has picked up from an English acquaintance. This versatile powder can accomplish feats as diverse as healing wounds and promoting love. It happens, however, that the same powder has enabled another Englishman, one Dr. Byrd, to solve a mystery that eventually brings about Roberto’s shipwreck. It is the historically knotty problem of longitude. Dr. Byrd is out to upstage France by discovering the Islands of Solomon, where it is supposed that gold lurks beneath the fruitful ground, so Roberto is pressed into duty as a spy on a ship called the Amaryllis, which will carry Byrd on his quest of the appropriate meridian. Would-be European imperialists knew that somewhere in the Pacific ran the longitudinal line half a world away from their own favorite prime meridian, which in the case of Roberto’s French sponsors runs through Paris.

Now Roberto, presumably the only survivor of the wreck of the Amaryllis, must face his contemptible Other. In one of his innumerable burlesques of literary conventions old and new, Eco explains that the manuscript that has somehow survived Roberto’s adventure is not sufficient to furnish a conclusion for the novel. In fact, the narrator cannot be sure that Roberto himself even wrote the manuscript.

No synopsis of The Island of the Day Before can do it justice. Eco’s novels live by his donnish—and in this novel Donneish—devices, for his appropriations of swaths of John Donne’s verse are perhaps the most frequent of Eco’s numerous tags from seventeenth century poetry. For example, Ferrante tries in one of the Parisian flashbacks to steal Lilia from Roberto, and she reacts by panting to him the concluding paradox of Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14: She will never be free unless he captures her, never chaste unless he violates her. Then the two “melt” into one another according to the same poet’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” at which point Roberto loses track of who is kissing whom.

Eco juxtaposes the intellectual aspirations of Roberto’s age and the modern world in a manner that inspires mingled admiration and ironic amusement for each. At one point in his earlier adventures, Roberto is shown an “Aristotelian machine” that is the mechanical equivalent of a computer with the capacity to generate endless permutations of data to aid in “understanding the world.” Eventually Roberto fantasizes about a variation of it, a great wheel of revolving concentric circles programmed to generate 722 million different stories. Could a seventeenth century thinker fall in with this type of “modern” computer-assisted obsession? As imagined by a late twentieth century writer such as Eco, he certainly can—especially an Eco who is contemporaneously writing a work of historical linguistics detailing the seventeenth century preoccupation with such generators of permutations and combinations. (A review of Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language appears elsewhere in Magill’s Literary Annual, 1996.)

If The Name of the Rose reflected its author’s sense of affinity between the medieval and modern sense of mystery, The Island of the Day Before might be said to draw upon another affinity, or set of affinities, between thoughtful denizens of the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Historians of ideas have speculated on the somewhat similar intellectual climates of the two eras, particularly the effect of the acceleration of the new knowledge on the old knowledge, and the chasm between boldly confident advanced thinkers and souls sensitive to, and fearful of, the inevitable cultural dislocations. The ambivalent attitude of a person unable to reject the new learning outright but at the same time conservative enough to sense its emotional and psychological cost can indeed be paralyzing.

Roberto is a man caught up in a restless spate of exploration and experiment. In addition to the geographical sort of research, considerable research on animals and vegetation of various sorts proceeds on both the Amaryllis and the Daphne. While new ideas, or at least ideas new to Roberto, fascinate him, his intellectual and imaginative habits belong to the preceding century. The kind of love poetry he attempts to compose, for example, is by 1643 out of fashion. He has been brought into an aggressive competition among imperially minded nations eager to appropriate new knowledge for their own political and military advantage, but he spends his time on the Daphne dreaming of the “day before” on the island just across what is now called the International Date Line. A young man endowed with a not particularly vigorous mind, he finds himself figuratively as well as literally at sea in a new world. He is a passive romantic in a world driven by unreflective acquisitors.

Less focused and compelling than The Name of the Rose, The Island of the Day Before offers in compensation a wider thematic range. It is infuriatingly quirky at times but replete with opportunities to experience Herman Melville’s “shock of recognition.” What one recognizes in reading it depends largely on the reading habits one brings to it.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXIII, September, 16, 1995, p. 34.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 30, 1995, p. 13.

London Review of Books. XVII, October 5, 1995, p. 8.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, October 6, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. C, October 22, 1995, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXXI, August 21, 1995, p. 122.

The Spectator. CCLXXV, September 30, 1995, p. 35.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 6, 1995, p. 31.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 9, 1995, p. 15.

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