THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE
By Umberto Eco
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
533 pp., $25
Here's a paradox: In an age when the average attention span is said to have shrunk to the size of a sound-byte, there is still (apparently) a considerable market for hefty novels, chock full of abstruse erudition, written by an Italian professor of semantics. "The Island of the Day Before" is Umberto Eco's third novel, if "novel" is the word for this curiously archaic assemblage of forgotten lore. Certainly it is fiction, and beneath its static (not to say becalmed) surface, it even contains a story of a sort. But for the most part, this fiction is a "novel" in the original sense of the term: a novelty, a new combination of elements.
The year is 1643, roughly a decade after Galileo's confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks to Magellan and Columbus, it has been fairly well established that the earth is round, but whether it or the sun is the center of the universe is still a hotly debated topic.
European nations are staking claims in the New World, explorers are exploring uncharted realms, Catholics are fighting with Protestants, and philosophers are working at new ways of reading the Book of Nature. It is hard to tell science from pseudoscience, reason from sophistry, rhetoric from reality. And no one has yet managed to find a sure-fire method of calculating longitude at sea.
The book opens with Roberto della Griva, a young Italian of good family, shipwrecked somewhere in the South Pacific.
As we later learn, Roberto was sent on a secret mission to spy on an eccentric Englishman whom French authorities suspected was about to crack the longitude mystery.
But instead of landing on a convenient island, Roberto finds himself marooned on another ship. Tantalizingly anchored within sight of a tropical island, the "Daphne," a Dutch vessel, is bounteously stocked with everything from fresh water and egg-laying hens to countless specimens of exotic plants and animals. All that seems lacking are passengers, crew, and lifeboats.
The lonely occupant of this floating paradise or prison, Roberto gingerly explores its contents while writing a somewhat fanciful account of his experiences. Believing he has reached the 180th meridian, Roberto supposes that the island, lying just beyond what we would now call the international dateline, is a land where today becomes yesterday. Having sipped various kinds of knowledge from a wide variety of sources and being less than a rigorous thinker, Roberto comes to imagine that reaching the island might mean undoing the effects of time. Commenting on Roberto's history and predicament is an unnamed narrator who comes upon Roberto's manuscript centuries later.
In the narrator's view, Roberto must have been an impressionable soul whose boyhood belief in a comprehensible universe was shattered by his exposure to the multiple, often contradictory interpretations of reality he encountered later in life: "Roberto learned to see the universal world as a fragile tissue of enigmas ... a world without any center, made up only of perimeters," he declares at one point.
Beautifully written and deftly translated by the estimable William Weaver, "The Island of the Day Before" is nonetheless a rather offputting artifact, charged with the thankless task of trying to interest the reader in "quaint and curious" volumes of "forgotten lore," while indicating the ultimate pointlessness of such knowledge. Eco's latest novel exudes a kind of melancholy in the face of a world with too much knowledge, none of it reliable, and where too many possible meanings add up to no meaning.