No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

#102: The Island of the Day Before -- Umberto Eco

I bought The Island of the Day Before in 1996, when it was first published in paperback. It took me ten years to get around to reading it, but eventually I decided that it would be ideal reading to accompany me on my first crossing of the International Date Line.

I was right, and wrong. It is a fine aid to sleep on a long flight. And it's a long, and rather dense, novel that nevertheless can be read in short bursts. But my primary reaction was baffled irritation, and I was relieved when I made it to the end. Not least because Eco, in true po-mo style, doesn't actually end his novel, and I like the idea of his characters existing in Limbo for all eternity.

The novel is set in 1643, and tells the story (according to the back cover) of "Roberto, a young nobleman ... survives war, the Bastille, exile and shipwreck as he voyages to a Pacific island straddling the date meridian. There he waits now, alone on the mysteriously deserted Daphne, separated by treacherous reefs from the island beyond: the island of the day before. If he could reach it, time - and his misfortunes - might be reversed. But first he must learn to swim..."

Now, if the book within the pages had been the book described on the cover, all would have been well. Or better, anyway. But instead of that swashbuckling, romantic, plotty story, much of the novel consists of Roberto's life story told in flashback (born; convinced he had a double who did all the naughty things; in love with a peasant girl, possibly; takes part in the siege of Casale; gets on the wrong side of the wrong people, and is sent to investigate the principles of longitude). And much of the rest of the book is taken up with a jumble of incoherent philosophy, mind games, gleeful catalogues of theories, emblems, ailments, cures, cartographical errors, ornithological collections, novelistic misconceptions and obscure terms. (Versipellous, nielloed, hircocern ...I wonder whether they were as obscure in the original Italian? If not, the translator -- William Weaver -- has a lot to answer for.)

Yes, there is some plot in there too, but it's overshadowed by what seems to be cleverness for its own sake. The wordplay is almost obsessive, and the whole scenario seems to be an excuse to set up various philosophical arguments -- Roberto is a thoughtful young fellow -- and then mock them.

And this whole thing about the date line ...
Father Caspar had erred to such an extent that he found himself, unwittingly, on our 180th meridian, I mean the one we calculate from Greenwich, the last place on earth he would have thought of, because it lay in the land of schismatic antipapists ...

Well? Is it the 'date line'? Or is it not? Because a great deal of the book seems concerned with mind-games about looking into the previous day, changing the past, Judas' suffering going on forever and thus taking place in a location where time doesn't pass. If this isn't the date line (or a date line: it was a very indefinite construct before the 19th century) then ...

We have the author's voice to remind us that this is a Novel, a tale told, a construct in itself. And perhaps the whole thing is some elaborate joke about narrative. Perhaps we are as trapped within the tale as Roberto is trapped on the ship: perhaps we are distracted by the scintillation of the prose, the pretty pictures and the clever jokes (there's a dog named Hakluyt), in the way that Roberto is distracted by the caged birds, or by his own phantasies.
Is it possible he did not realise that he was planning to land in reality on the Island to rescue a woman who was arriving there only through his narration?

Is it possible that the reader has not realised that he has read to the end of The Island of the Day Before to find the ending of a story (man is shipwrecked, gets fever, goes mad) that has no ending?

Well, is it?

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