Review of The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
The Island of the Day Before
by Umberto Eco
Reading a book by Umberto Eco has become a yearly tradition since I joined Goodreads, and for 2010 I just managed to squeeze The Island of the Day Before under the wire. For the past two years, each Eco book has also made its respective year's list of the best ten books I read that year. If The Island does not join them in this honour, it is only because I have been lucky enough to read so many other great books in 2010. However, this is not a retrospective on my reading over the entire year; this is a book review.
The reason I read one and only one Umberto Eco book is that Eco, more than any other author I have ever encountered, makes me think. His books are not transparent and not easy to read, but they are so good. The Name of the Rose was a fascinating medieval mystery that fanned the flames of my interest in medieval rhetoric. And do not get me started about Foucault's Pendulum, which remains one of my favourite books. Eco is erudite and eloquent in his style. He shows off his knowledge of history, but it's not done solely to impress the reader or display how much more he knows of the seventeenth century. Instead, Eco invites us to share in that knowledge through this narrative. In so doing, not only do we learn about this period, but we get exposed to Baroque ways of thinking and reasoning through the use of metaphor, allegory, and syllogism.
At first, The Island of the Day Before seemed like it would employ the same meta-fictional ambiguity present in Foucault's Pendulum. When Roberto, himself the sole survivor of the shipwrecked Amaryllis arrives on the anchored yet abandoned Daphne, he soon discovers he is not alone. Someone else is stealing eggs from the hens, rummaging through the letters he writes to his lost, unrequited love: in short, there is an Intruder aboard. Roberto spends several chapters exploring the Daphne and trying to discover the nature of this Intruder. Who could it be? Another survivor from the Amaryllis? More likely, someone left aboard from the Daphne. Except the way that the narrator presents Roberto's search for this Intruder, interspersed with more flashbacks to his life growing up in La Griva, his coming-of-age at Casale, and his itinerant adventures in France, I started wondering if the Intruder was even real. It seemed more likely that the Intruder was like Ferrante, Roberto's imagined older brother banished for crimes unknown.
One person cautioned me not to see too many similarities between these two books. He is right: for one thing, the Intruder turned out to be real. That disappointed me at first, but I quickly adapted. After all, Eco's style is just so enchanting that it is impossible to stay mad at him for long, even when his narratives do not take the turns you want or expect. Plus, the metamorphosis of the Intruder into Father Caspar gives Roberto a welcome companion on the Daphne and provides us with numerous interesting conversations and debates. Eco gives us a crash course in Baroque methods of argument and reasoning as Caspar and Roberto debate heliocentrism and physics. I love the way Eco captures the modes of thinking of the time. We and the narrator both know about John Harrison and that Galileo and Copernicus were indeed correct. But Eco is so good at portraying an authentic seventeenth-century mindset.
I loved the flashbacks too. Eco reminds me why I tend to prefer British historical fiction: continental European history is so damn convoluted! You have all these little city-states, republics, kingdoms related through marriage and blood and empires that may or may not have control over their protectorates. It is not at all unified, often confusing, and very chaotic. But I loved reading about Roberto's involvement at Casale, his suspicions that Ferrante was the traitor, and his subsequent troubles in Paris. Roberto is an interesting character: not all that smart, but very educated and, above all, imaginative. This last quality proves essential for helping him survive, although it is also rather dangerous.
Imagination is the quintessential ingredient to The Island of the Day Before. It allows Roberto to conjure up his brother, Ferrante, and later create an entire Romance in which he is the hero, Ferrante the villain, and Lilia the love interest. Also, imagination allows the narrator to construct this story we're reading from the extant papers written by Roberto. It is important to remember that the story does not come directly from Roberto. Roberto begins by writing several letters to Lilia, whom our narrator first calls "the Lady." Later, after the Intruder has been introduced as Father Caspar, those letters stop, but Roberto continues to record his observations and his actions. Yet he did not record everything, and not everything he recorded survived and made its way to our narrator's hands intact. And how do we know our narrator does not have some sort of bias or agenda? So there is a necessary amount of interpolation and extrapolation happening here, resulting from not one but two unreliable narrators.
This hearkens back to Foucault's Pendulum. More than anything, I think Eco loves to experiment with the substance of stories as vehicles of thought. He isn't experimenting with story structure in the sense of how one tells a story but in the sense of how the story conveys his impressions of the Baroque period. The result are arguments and conversations between Roberto and people like Cardinal Mazarin or Father Caspar about longitude and the heliocentric theory. And then there is Padre Emanuele's Aristotelian Telescope, a machine made to construct metaphors!
The most obvious way to experiment with this particular story lies in its resolution. The Island of the Day Before is, at its core, a castaway story. Indeed, I was wary when I began reading, because with castaway stories, you basically have two options: either the castaway gets rescued, or he dies. So I was interested to see which route Eco would take with Roberto's shipwreck aboard the Daphne. At some point, I reasoned, Roberto would have to visit the island. But Eco dangled this goal in front of me like a carrot, drawing out Roberto's eventual departure across the hundred-eightieth meridian and into the "day before" for the length of the entire book.
And it was worth the wait. The Island of the Day Before did not impress me quite as much as the two other books I have read. I lay the blame for this squarely at Roberto's feet, because as a protagonist he is quite different from Adso and Casaubon, who were both learned and literary fellows. Roberto, while educated and literate, is nobility. Despite his presence at Casale, he knows little of real war and has spent a good amount of his time carousing through the less reputable streets of Paris. He is endearing more for his helplessness and his predicament than out of any true empathy he inspires; I want him to succeed and survive more because no one deserves to be shipwrecked on a ship.
But if I were shipwrecked on a ship, I hope it's because I'm in an Umberto Eco novel. I hope I would get to stare longingly at an island trapped one day in my past and construct a romance of my own devising for my lost love, who has been seduced by my evil yet fictitious older brother. I hope I would get to converse with a rather odd Jesuit who probably meets an untimely end trying to reach the island. Although, truth be told, I would much rather be the narrator, who seems the best off of any Eco's characters.
The Island of the Day Before is delectable. It is not my favourite book by Umberto Eco, but it has all the hallmarks that make him one of my favourite authors—and in fact, I think I would recommend this book to people who are interested in Eco but not sure if they could make it through The Name of the Rose or Foucault's Pendulum. This is the same, yet different. Even though it is not quite as impressive, it is no less wonderful.