Friday, May 15, 2009

The Island of the Day Before

The Island of the Day Before, by Umberto Eco
1994, 517 pp.

This is the eighth book I have read by Umberto Eco, and the fourth novel. It is probably the most accessible of his fictions, though it lacks the frantic exuberance of Foucault's Pendulum.

Eco seems to have a curious habit of inventing complicated, over-educated, worldly, highly erudite characters who he then fits into rather conventional, almost dime-store plots with which he tinkers around, adding a few whimsical, slightly postmodern flourishes. The Island of the Day Before is the story of Roberto della Griva, a young Italian adventurer of the seventeenth century who finds himself shipwrecked. None of the usual Robinson Crusoe business here, though: Roberto is shipwrecked on another ship, which is abandoned (sort of) and anchored within sight of an island. Between the ship and the island runs the international date line, so the island is literally in The Day Before. The rest of the book concerns lengthy flashbacks (some 40 chapters of them, I think) explaining how Roberto ended up in this predicament, interspersed with present-day chapters on how he tries to get out of it.

The MacGuffin is the secret of longitude, which indeed was quite a difficult concept to figure out. Somewhat annoyingly, Eco subjects the reader to several long pseudo-scientific debates on this and other subjects in which people alternate spewing out several pages of peculiar seventeenth-century reasoning. Eco is persuasive at evoking the intellectual excitement of the time, when modern science was first extracting itself from the swamps of tradition, superstition, and confusion, but we never particularly get to see the beginnings of what was to become actual science, just a lot of intellectual dead-ends being tossed about. A debate between alchemy and phlogiston theory is only of limited entertainment value. These tend to wear on a bit, as does Eco's penchant for bloody-minded lists of permutations. These are a recurring event in his books, which if animated by scholarly enthusiasm (The Name of the Rose) or playful humor (Foucault's Pendulum) can be a pleasurable way to display his erudition, but can be fatal to the book if carried on in the absence of a meaningful story or interesting characters (I'm looking at you, Baudolino). Here they are not so intrusive, but are still unwelcome when they arrive.

Of course this wouldn't be an Eco book if there wasn't some rumination on the subject of narrative, an interplay of texts of questionable authenticity and veracity, and some trickery involving what is and is not fiction. At an early age Roberto conceives of an imaginary evil twin named Ferrante for whom he blames all of his life's problems. In the last third of the book, Roberto (apparently desperate for something he can control) begins to write a story in which he blames Ferrante for the circumstances which led to his voyage to the South Pacific, for stealing his lady-love, for shipwrecking him, and so forth. These work as a sort of fiction-within-a-fiction parallel to Roberto's own flashbacks. Roberto and Ferrante's back stories tend to be the most entertaining sections, sometimes accelerating into the territory of "rollicking adventure novel." There is a lengthy sequence early on about the siege of Casale, some love poems, and a mysterious sea journey. Richelieu and Mazarin have suitably villainous cameos, and there is some obligatory court intrigue to go along with it.

Eco employs his usual trope of presenting the text as a manuscript delivered to an unnamed editor who intrudes periodically in modern idiom to add humorous comment or reflection on the book's action. Eco, who seems to love nothing more than an unreliable narrator, uses this to add an extra level of doubtful veracity into a story already packed with unwise suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, it also allows him to (wryly, mischievously) deliver a rather annoying cop-out of an ending. The litmus test of this book, precisely like all of Eco's other fiction is this: so long as the story is grounded in some semblance of reality, even a reality told in flashback or imagined in a narrative, the book works. When Eco indulges in lengthy flights of mystic fantasy or delirium, it does not. That The Island of the Day Before is two parts reality and erudition for every one part rhapsodic obscurantism is a strength. It is a solid, diverting book.

A final note is warranted in admiration for the heroic William Weaver, who has translated all of Umberto Eco's books into English, as well as piles of Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Italo Svevo. I'm given to understand he works closely with Eco on translation, and somehow they have conceived of a process which allows them to translate words like "atrament" and "atrabilious." (Indeed, I've read the diary he kept during his year translating "Foucault's Pendulum," and experienced many a sympathetic wince as he finds himself driven to obscure dictionaries which even then do not have the peculiar words, terms, and names Eco uses...and what does one do when translating polyglot puns in dialogue of characters who constantly use foreign expressions? What about when you realize that words which are nouns in English are adjectives in Italian? The mind reels.). Any book translated by Mr. Weaver is certain to be a wealth of excellent prose, and this is no exception.

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