Castaway

In his new novel, Umberto Eco sets a sea voyage in the intellectual turmoil of the mid-17th century


By Robert Kelly

New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995

THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE
By Umberto Eco
Translated from the Italian
by William Weaver
513 pp. New York;
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/
Harcourt Brace & Company. $25.

Every age gets the classics it deserves. I hope we deserve "The Island of the Day Before." If we do, we will not only know the pleasures of a profound and ingenious story artfully told but will experience Renaissance battles, love poems and sea journeys in the age of exploration. Shipwrecked among archaic scientific nightmares and failed beginnings and dead ends of technology, we will recover the perennial hope of making sense of what happens to us.
A grand and entertaining book, and a deliriously writerly one, this novel belongs in the great tradition of the conte philosophique, like Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," Johnson's "Rasselas" and Voltaire's "Candide." Especially Voltairean in the way Mr. Eco holds his likable hero at arm's length: the character is seen, and seen through, projected on a narrative surface that is cool, glittery and very smart. In a world of metaphors, surface means all.
This is an encyclopedic novel, lushly illuminating the Baroque era so deeply embedded in our own. It explores one of the most exciting periods in intellectual history: the mid-17th century, when alchemy and chemistry are still entwined, when Descartes is still slowly articulating his world view, when Galileo for all his prudence can let himself see the moons of Jupiter, precipitating changes not just in our view of the solar system but in the way we reason from appearances. It is the moment when the human being, abruptly dismissed by the new astronomy from the center of all creating, almost immediately recaptures that centrality by asserting the omnipotence of the human mind: when Descartes says "I think, therefore I am," the world hears "I perceive, therefore it is." All this is relevant to this complicated, hilarious and despondent tale of a poor shipwrecked Italian, a photophobe with weak eyes, lost in the tropics. He is at the center of the only universe there is, and he can thrive only by thinking.
In Mr. Eco's fable, literary traditions are regenerated (which also means re-genre-ated), often in strange ways. Imagine a Dumas novel of swashbuckling charlatans and heroic illuminates told by Voltaire. Imagine a commentary on Dante's "Purgatorio" written in the form of a novel by Jules Verne. This book is many books. That is perhaps the secret of Umberto Eco. Just as Dante sternly expected us to read one "single" text at four different levels of interpretation, so Mr. Eco's novels open out wondrous multiplicities of reading. For all the narrative lucidity and charm, there is always something else going on.
"The Island of the Day Before" is really a book about telling, about the utter necessity of narrative. With our shipwrecked hero, we are in a world in which the only clarity is the story we tell, which is also our only escape. We get a hint from an earlier Eco essay, "The Poetics of the Open Work": "If Baroque spirituality is to be seen as the first clear manifestation of modern culture and sensitivity, it is because here, for the first time, man . . . finds that he is faced (both in art and science) by a world in a fluid state which required corresponding creativity on his part."
Roberto della Griva is a young man from a north Italian squirearchy. What he does best is learn. He's not so good at practice - so his story is comic in rhythm and event, if not in meaning. During the siege of a town called Casale, Roberto sees his father killed, and vaguely learns war and siegecraft. He is timid, delicate, easily perplexed. He learns atheism and how to write love letters from a version of the historical Cyrano de Bergerac. Love itself he studies in the exuberant conceits of the Italian poet Giambattista Marino and of Donne, whose famous trope of the compass - one limb ever fixed, one ever running - is put to good use to describe Roberto's great love for his Lilia. Because he has learned the literary conventions of love, he will never approach her, but will write her all the poems and unsendable letters that this novel pretends to discover and quote in 40 chapters full of intricate flashback.
The philosopher Pierre Gassendi, with whom Roberto studies, teaches that nothing exists in the intellect except what comes there by way of the senses. (This charter of empiricism becomes a touchstone for the realities and dreams that Roberto will later experience.) Roberto meets other great thinkers and learns to philosophize like an elegant amateur, writes poems, is arrested for something he didn't do, meets the archpolitician Cardinal Mazarin and is dispatched by him on a sea voyage to spy on the mysterious English Dr. Byrd, who is rumored to have discovered what all ancient mariners dreamed of, a means of determining longitude at sea by computing time measured from a fixed point. On board the ship Amaryllis, Byrd is carrying out an experiment that combines in one brilliant, macabre metaphor the theme of the search for longitude with the theme of the Powder of Sympathy. Invented by the somber Cagliostro, Sir Kenelm Digby, this nostrum heals a wound when applied to the weapon that inflicted it.
When the Amaryllis is shipwrecked in the South Seas, hard by the Islands of Solomon, Roberto, the sole survivor, is cast away not on and island but on another ship, the Daphne, derelict but well equipped, a little world for him alone. There is an island nearby. Yet Roberto can't swim. Even when he learns ( in some fine comic passages) to paddle, he realizes that the slender strait that keeps him from the island can never be crossed. For the island is the day before, and he cannot go back in time. He has come to the fabled meridian between today and tomorrow, a sort of cosmic international date line. Time in many senses - Proustian, historical, relativistic - now becomes the central concern of the novel: the loose or structured memories by which we compel time to take on meaning. A gorgeous parable of the orange dove of the South Seas provides a lyric grounding for speculation.
What Roberto finds on board the Daphne are clocks, hundreds of them vainly clanking away, all telling different hours (not till the next century would a reliable ship's chronometer be invented). The ship is loud with the quacking and chirping of many caged birds and beasts - a pleasantry about "natural theology" that infers from the clockwork of nature the presence of a clock winder, a feeder of birds, a demiurge, a God. But such evidence of design is also a threat for Roberto, who gets drunk on casks of eau de vie and goes searching for the hidden presence. We remember Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" when he finds a telltale footprint (Roberto is too smashed to know if it's his own, but we know, we who are the readers, the gods of this universe). In the useful rubbish he finds around the ship we recall that childhood classic "The Swiss Family Robinson" and that most American of novels, "The Mysterious Island," by Jules Verne. So we expect a Captain Nemo and are not disappointed. The Daphne, like any well-appointed 17th century dwelling, boasts a Jesuit in a priest hole. Out he pops, Father Wanderdrossel, "wandering thrush." (Grive also means thrush, and the commonest American thrush is the robin - can we read della Griva then as Robinson, and know Roberto as Defoe's exiled Everyman?) The Jesuit is the most touching character in the book: he is Roberto's final teacher, and indeed he invents and operates something like a submarine. It does not work as well as Nemo's.
Trapped, Roberto dreams us back to his youth, and dreams himself sideways into a tenebrous alternative universe. As he ponders his memories, it seems more and more likely to Roberto that he has and has always had, a wicked half-brother, Ferrante, who all through his like has persecuted him from afar, even committing the crime for which Roberto has been exiled on this journey. Even now, Ferrante might be wooing and winning Roberto's beloved. Indeed, he is an obedient phantom; he naturally is doing everything that Roberto imagines him doing. Roberto has told himself and us a tail that fully incarnates the wicked brother, the self as other, and creates a bleak paranoia of vengeance demanded and won, as sinister as Stevenson's great "Master of Ballantrae." Ferrante is carried into death amid horrifying images of the afterlife, and Roberto, too, must venture a great work poised on the brink of time itself. With a shiver, we remember that Dante had set his "Purgatorio" in the South Seas, on and island no ship could reach.
As in Mr. Eco's previous fiction, we find a profoundly humanist agenda at work, one that urgently if playfully seeks to make us aware of the uninterrupted continuity of human thinking - the conspiracy of the work to be known. " The Name of the Rose" studied the authoritarianism of intellectual orthodoxy, while "The Island of the Day Before" reminds us of the authoritarianism of narrative itself, the eternal dictator who is the storyteller. His novels are demonstrations of the seamlessness of time, a timeless proliferation of ideas in action. Only by telling a story can you tell is an idea is valid. The great speculators are the artists who told the story in which we, in our turn, create them.
By this story's end, or endings (several are at our disposal), we are marooned in mirages of damnation, loss, futility, grief. We have come to that modern age where the nice distinction between a time-share purgatory and an eternal hell breaks down; we drift toward the frozen anti-center of the inferno, where all molecular motion ceases - that is, where all stories end. The figures of despair are Dantescan in their dignity, their flayed bodies like Vesalius engravings of our poor nature. The author's ironic lighthandedness and imagistic precision, empowered by a persistent compassion, achieve a thrilling grandeur. I was reminded of Rossini's serious operas, "Semiramide" or even "Otello," where after tragedy we are left not drained but energized, exhilarated by the sheer sensory excitement of the music's telling.
Such telling - critically dependent on tone rhythm, image - needs great translation. And it gets it. The phenomenal resourcefulness of William Weaver's fluently idiomatic English matches the author's registers, by turn poetic, academic, archaic, colloquial. With companionable naturalness, the translation seems to be breathed in our mother tongue.


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