A 17th Century Italian knight recounts his adventures during a siege in the Thirty Years' War and afterwards in naval espionage against the British. In between, he describes the salons of Paris, lessons in fencing and reasons of state, and gives his thoughts on writing love letters and on blasphemy.
This might be seen as a continuation of the debate with the early work of Michel Foucault that was central to Eco’s previous novel, Foucault’s Pendulum (and, yes, I’m aware that the Foucault referenced in that title is not the 20th-century French philosopher… except that, in a way, he is). It would certainly be possible to argue that The Island of the Day Before aims for a description of the Baroque épisteme (not unlike Peter Greenaway’s movie The Draughtsman’s Contract, to which Eco’s novel indeed does bear some similarities), although I personally feel more inclined to see the influence of Hans Blumenberg at work here, in particularly the short but utterly brilliant and eminently read-worthy Shipwreck with Spectator.
It’s not quite correct to say that The Island of the Before describes a certain historical view of the world, though - that is what Foucault and Blumenberg did, being philosophers. Eco, being a novelist (or at least wearing his novelist’s hat here, although Eco the semiologist definitely has the occasional cameo appearance), rather embodies it: The Island of the Day Before is just the kind of huge, sprawling, colourful, digressive, funny, erudite monster of a narrative that Baroque authors (and, one assumes, readers) so loved. In contrast to Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, Eco does not attempt to get at the heart of what the period was about by way of (more or less) realistic mimesitic narrative, by basically writing a 19th-century novel about the 17th century, but by having his novel become a 17th novel instead (which is, of course, and quite ironically, very much a 20th century maneuvre), and indeed suceeds where Stephenson fails.
This is not a novel of surprising plots twists, then (although what plot there is does twist quite a bit, and there are some surprises along the way, too), nor a novel of deep characterisation (although it is populated by some rather fascinating characters), nor a novel of lavish descriptions (although – as much as I was able to judge this, reading a translation – the prose seems quite wonderful, moving with ease between a drier, reticient style and the exuberance of Baroque pastiche), but it is first and foremost a novel of ideas, and is likely to appeal most to readers who are intellectually curious, who like to be served some cerebral meat to sink their mind’s teeth into (my apologies for the metaphor) and enjoy exploring concepts, following them down to their last ramifications. Or else academics.
Thomas Mann, the undisputed master of the novel of ideas, is indeed another huge influence here; Roberto reminded me more than once of Hans Castorp, the siege of Casale reads almost like a Baroque version of the Zauberberg, including its own versions of Naphta and Settembrini, and Wanderdrossel’d dialogue sounds (at least in the German translation) uncannily like the devil in Doktor Faustus. All this juggling of influences and proliferation of references (of which I have barely scratched the surface here) is by no means gratuitous but is very distintive for the literature of the period that prided itself on its erudition (while today’s authors, one often feels, tend to be rather embarrassed by it, unless it is pop culture they are referencing to).
All of this might give one the impression that The Island of the Day Before is basically a faux-Baroque novel, a mere pastiche of period literature, but that would very misleading. True, there is a Baroque novel at the hear of Eco’s – but the reader gets to see it only in brief glimpses. Because the book does not present us with Roberto’s chronicle of events, but instead with a chronicle of that chronicle, done by a narrator who is probably the most fascinating and enigmatic character to appear here. I found it very hard to place him in a definite period – while there is never a doubt that he is to be situated some time after Roberto, it never becomes quite clear as to how much afterwards. Early in the novel, the narrator analyses Roberto’s character in terms of the Four Temperaments and their associated humours which would lead one to believe that he must be almost contemporary with Roberto. But near the novel’s end, he mentions Hollywood, which would place him in the 20th century at the earliest. This is never explicitely resolved, and it is left to the reader to make sense of it; my own theory is that the narrator actually evolves during the course of the novel and is not the same at the end as he was at the beginning, and that this development is accompanied by that of the narrative strategies he employs and which seem to increasingly take a turn towards the modern as the novel progresses. But there are doubtlessly other explanations for this, and maybe I just imagined something which is not really there at all…
The Island of the Day Before is a fantasy about fantasy, with a
Although this story was set a century earlier, I found it rather reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Both are big beefy novels written in the waning of the 20th century, and concerned with the exploratory push of European powers (in early modernity and the Enlightenment, respectively), as well as the relationships between objective and subjective worlds. But their titles show the biggest difference between the books. Mason & Dixon has two protagonists, and the surfeit of plot (to be expected from Pynchon) concerns their relationships to each other and their world. The insular Eco novel is instead nearly solipsistic in the extent to which characters other than the protagonist Roberto are practically reduced to figments of his imagination--the plot, such as it is, is largely in his reminiscences, dreams, and eventually, composed fictions.
The book is a long one, with many short chapters, and the slow pace of the plotting makes it easy to pick up and to put down. It took me more than a month to read it through. My two favorite chapters in the book could each stand on their own, and with particular reference to my occult interests. Chapter 26, "Delights for the Ingenious: A Collection of Emblems" is a long meditation on the symbolism of doves. Chapter 37, "Paradoxical Exercises Regarding the Thinking of Stones," is a contemplative demonstration of getting stoned in line with the discussion "On the Final Will" in Liber Aleph vel CXI.
The metafictional elements are pronounced in this novel, where the principal character himself ends up writing a "romance," in which his imagined half-brother and rival becomes his alter-ego. Eco makes both the opening and the closing of the book rather disorienting and unconventional, as part of his reflection on the composition of imaginative literature, and he uses the premise of working from a discovered three-hundred-year-old manuscript both to assert and to undermine the credibility of his story.
It is not a rollicking adventure in the vein of Baudolino or a mystery as In The Name of the Rose. The physical adventure of being shipwrecked on an anchored ship is mitigated by the total indolence of the protagonist. He is entirely self-centered and while not unintelligent, disinclined to keep his thoughts at any matter at hand. It's a fantastic conceit, as it leaves scads of room for the narrator of the story room to ponder, to consider, to teach and to be confused.
It is the brilliance of Umberto Eco (and his translator, William Weaver) that allow the joy of language to carry the story that isn't even really a story through every one of its movements and mini-treatises on intellectual trends. It is something that intrigues me - how content Eco seems to be to explore the thought of different ages fully and completely in his novels, choosing adventures that are entirely plausible (though rarely probably) in the time of the story.
This is not a book that will appeal to every reader. Even those who enjoy long books may not enjoy this book, as it is not only lengthy but incredibly dense - it is joyful density, but that does not make it any easier to read. I think I read it too quickly, but now that I've read it, I am happy to read through it in pieces again and again.
The initial setup is that the protagonist, Roberto, is trapped on a wrecked ship a mile from an island surrounded by a coral reef inhabited by poisonous fish, and he can't swim, and the book is supposed to be a sort of biography (although with a lot of artistic licence), based on the letters he wrote to the woman he loved while trapped there.
I can't say I enjoyed it as much as Foucault's Pendulum, or The Name Of The Rose - it was a bit slower, since the setting didn't allow for much action, and it wasn't really to my taste. But there was a lot of... historical background, and things about the science of the age (17th century) which was interesting.
The ending seemed a bit strange, at first. But in retrospect, I think that any other ending would have been disappointing.
I'm afraid that kind of makes it sound more interesting than it is, though. There's an odd feeling of pointlessness about much of it, for me, because these issues are all addressed from a 17th-century perspective -- well, more or less -- and so the cosmological and scientific ideas are mostly wrong, or at best only vaguely right. Of course, a look at how people thought about such things in the past is interesting in itself, or can be, but long, long discussions like the ones here don't work so well in the service of a novel; after a while they start to get tedious. On the other hand, since this isn't a textbook on the evolution of natural philosophy, but rather mixes its science, history, and philosophy in with fanciful ideas, anachronisms, and metaphors, its use in educating the reader is limited, too. One might certainly come away from it having been exposed to new ideas (or rather, to very old ones), but not necessarily with a very good understanding of those ideas and their historical context.
And, in my case, there wasn't a lot that was unfamiliar and exciting to me, anyway. There were times when I couldn't help conjuring up the mental image of Umberto Eco sitting in a college dorm in a haze of pot smoke going, "Did I just blow your miiiiind?" Which, well, no, Umberto. No, you really kind of didn't.
Which is too bad, because a lot of what he's doing here, otherwise, is actually very clever, featuring different layers of narrative that are tangled up in a really nifty way. I think he's also doing some good stuff with language, although, sadly, I fear that inevitably a lot of that gets lost in translation.
Rating: 3/5, but I have to admit that's basically me giving it an "E for Effort."
William Weaver is best known for his translations of Umberto Eco and Italio Calvino. He has been translating Italian authors for over fifty years. He also works as a critic and commentator for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Weaver was a professor at Bard College in New York, and was a Bard Center Fellow. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Leicester in the UK, and Trinity College in addition to his postgraduate study at the University of Rome, and his B.A. from Princeton University. He has several original works mainly revolving around the librettos of Verdi and Puccini.
Disclaimer! My brain hurts, and I will admit that it took me a bit to get interested in The Island of the Day Before. However, after I realized that my constant companion while reading this book would be a dictionary, the book became much more intriguing. The problem, truthfully, is that not only is the writing very deep and complex, but it is also originally in Italian. So, the English translation is a little hard to grasp at times. In addition, the novel isn’t really what I thought it would be: an adventure to an island of the day before, as the title implies. Rather, it is more of a philosophical introspection.
Reading a Journal
The Island of the Day Before is Eco’s third novel, and focuses on a 17th century Italian nobleman, Roberto della Griva, who is the sole survivor of a terrible stormy gale. He becomes marooned on an island, and can see an island that is in the distance which he is convinced is on the other side of the International Date Line. Roberto wants to visit it, as he believes going to the island will fix all his woes. But, he is deathly afraid to swim to it.
Shipwrecked and swept from his ship, the Amaryllis, he manages to pull himself aboard the fully provisioned ship Daphne, anchored in the bay of a beautiful island. Della Griva goes through a series of flashbacks of a metacognitive nature. The ship is eerily quiet, as if the entire crew fled some terrible specter. We, the reader, get to view Roberto’s journey through the eyes of a modern narrator who has found della Griva’s journal on board the derelict ship. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see Roberto as he questions truth, reality, and the overall meaning of life.
“From the way he recalls it on the Daphne, I tend to believe that at Casale, while he lost both his father and himself in a war of too many meanings and of no meaning at all, Roberto learned to see the universal world as a fragile tissue of enigmas, beyond which there was no longer an Author; or if there was, He seemed lost in the remaking of Himself from too many perspectives. If there Roberto had sensed a world now without any center, made up only of perimeters, here he felt himself truly in the most extreme and most lost of peripheries, because, if there was a center, it lay before him, and he was its immobile satellite” (145-146).
We can also hear of loves lost through some guile on the part of another,
“Oh Love, Love, Love, have you not punished me enough already, is this not a death undying?” (385).
The loss of love is merely one of the finer points of life that Eco gets to discuss through this novel, and he talks about it in a truly poetic way. Love can punish more than a simple death, as it is an ongoing process. Death is but once; the loss of a love is revisited time and time again in painful agony.
Umberto Eco is a big fan of semiotics – the study of signs in language. Eco seems particularly fond of the specific part of semiotics called pragmatics, the study of signs and the effects they have on the people who use them. Eco even takes the liberty within his novel to educate the reader on semiotics. He talks to the reader directly about the plot, not as the narrator, but instead as Umberto Eco himself.
“So we may assume that gradually, perhaps through the therapeutic action of that balmy air or that sea water, Robert was cured of a complaint that, real or imagined, had turned him into a lycanthrope for more than ten months (unless the reader chooses to insinuate that because from now on I need him on deck full-time, and finding no contradiction among his papers, I am freeing him from all illness, with authorial arrogance)” (280).
A Work in a Work
Eco seems to love blurring his fictional writing with a dialogue in reality as well. While extremely confusing at the time, his references to other works of fiction are rather refreshing. And, of course, what better fiction to reference than his own, such as the notes of Adso of Melk from The Name of the Rose (played by Christian Slater in the movie version of the novel)?
“For the captain it was obvious that the books, having belonged to a plague victim, were agents of infection. The plague is transmitted, as everyone knows, through venenific unguents, and he had read of people who died by wetting a finger with saliva as they leafed through works whose pages had in fact been smeared with a poison” (248).
For those that don’t know, in The Name of the Rose, the pages of a journal were poisoned, so that those who read it, and turn the pages by licking their fingers are killed. The canadian rock group Arcade Fire even references the famed passage in the song Neon Bible.
"Take the poison of your age / Don't lick your fingers when you turn the page"
I also found references to The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers in the novel. It certainly seems like Eco wants to educate the reader in general works of fiction as he writes.
Space, Time, and Beauty
One of the larger themes in the novel is the concept of time. Is time able to be manipulated, or is it constant? Can one travel to the day before? Roberto is convinced that his troubles will end if only he could travel to the day before. He would no longer find himself marooned, and would no longer be forced to boringly reminisce about his past life. But, the island in the distance seemingly moves farther away from him.
“Indeed, as he sees it distant not only in space but also (backwards) in time, from this moment on, whenever he mentions that distance, Roberto seems to confuse space and time, and he writes, ‘The bay, alas, is too yesterday,’ and ,’How much sea separates me from the day barely ended,’ and even, ‘Threatening rainclouds are coming from the Island, whereas today it is already clear . . . . But if the Island moves ever farther away, is it still worth the effort to learn to reach it?’” (362).
This quote encapsulates for me the beauty of this novel. While there is much to be discussed in the way of academia, semiotics, and the like, his poetic writing is what makes the novel simply great to read. Eco blends his poetic hand with some terribly mind-bending concepts. The Island of the Day Before is truly beautifully written, and Eco’s expert prose makes it fly off the page. The tome is incredibly thought provoking and it forces the reader to think about the finer things in life.
Although The Island of the Day Before is hard to read, if you have some resilience and a dictionary, I strongly recommend you read it.
Originally Posted At: wherepenmeetspaper.blogspot.com
I am so relieved that I made it through to the end - though it took me about 3 months to do so.
Maybe I'll try reading it again in the future with more success. Maybe it was just a really bad time for me.
Now, I hope this review doesn't deter anyone from picking up and reading The Island of the Day Before for themselves. I am just not a big fan of the ship-wrecked man type of story that this one is and is something I need to be in the right frame of mind for. The metaphysical aspects of the story, while fascinating at first, became a bit of a laborious chore to get through and reached a level of eye rolling obscurity when Roberto examines whether or not a stone can feel or has any form of sentient thought. Even with these negatives, the story was not enough of a chore to deter me from wanting to retain my copy for a potential re-read at some point in the future. As you have probably guessed, this isn't exactly an easy book for me to write a review for.
Unfortunately there are a number of
Large parts of the book attempt to explain Roberto’s situation through a series of flashbacks relating his role in the battles of Casale, the loss of his father, his unrequited love for Lilia and his suspicion of an imaginary evil brother he names Ferrante. Towards the end of the book, Roberto attempts to provide solace to himself in writing a novel explaining how Ferrante lead to his demise through attempts to steal Lilia and ruin him politically. Roberto received a serious head wound during the war. This injury combined with his confusion between space and time, his paranoid schizophrenic behavior during his time on the ship and his inability to separate reality from fantasy leads the reader to believe the main character suffered from a serious mental illness.
The book is also a treatise on topics that were popular during the Age of Reason including: astronomy, navigation, cartography, medicine, mechanics and the scientific method. These descriptions, such as the dissertation on the difficulty in calculating longitude and its importance in navigation, receive numerous paragraphs of intricate details. Roberto also entwines the poetic. For example, his lengthy narrative regarding time includes a passage about clocks that reads, in part, “those cogged wheels that shredded the day into bits of instants and consumed life in a music of death.” While the information doesn’t further the story, it adds to the overall lushness and fabric of detail that makes this book interesting.
The title of the book arises from the conflict between the science of navigation and how we define “time.” Should Roberto be able to swim from the ship on which he is stranded to the nearby island, he would cross the International Date Line and we would essentially arrive at the island the “day before.” The book ends with Roberto’s final attempt to reach that island with no mention to his achievement of that goal.
I was enjoying the framing story approach through its opening chapters, but I was in for a surprise halfway through when the backstory caught up with the present and many circumstantial mysteries were quickly dispensed with. This robbed the novel of its direction and the last hundred pages or so are almost aimless, bogged down by philosophical meandering which might be read as encroaching madness, ending on a somewhat unsatisfactory note that invites additional philosophical meandering on my own time beyond the final page. With little forward momentum and much reflection, this is a novel probably best read alongside something else and consumed in small morsels so as to not give way to impatience with Eco's playfulness. Not among his best, but not terrible if you have an appreciation for this author.