USA Today: January 9, 1996
With his previous best-sellers The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco created an audience for his unique blend of suspenseful storytelling and minutely detailed historical exposition. Although his new book, The Island of the Day Before, represents a foray in a slightly different direction, the essential elements of Eco's formula remain the same, and the result does not disappoint.
The Island of the Day Before (the title refers to an island seen from a ship on the international date line and therefore theoretically still in the previous day) is the story of Roberto della Griva, a young man who, in the summer of 1643, is shipwrecked somewhere in the South Pacific. How and why he got there is the subject of the first half of the novel. In a series of flashbacks, the narrator describes Roberto's bucolic childhood and his experience with the Thirty Years War, the Plague and the salons of Paris before he goes to sea on a mission for the French government. The second half of the book addresses Roberto's plight. Stranded on a mysteriously abandoned ship, in sight of an island he cannot reach because he cannot swim, Roberto alternately pines for his absent beloved and considers the full range of philosophical questions of his day. Superstitious and only partially educated, he nevertheless possesses a great curiosity about the workings of the universe, which gets free rein as he separates from civilization.
While cleverly weaving Roberto's story through various actual historical events and interactions with historical figures (Roberto's meeting with the Machiavellian Cardinal Mazarin is particularly funny), Eco's authorial voice plays fast and loose with narrative conventions. He interjects ironic commentary on the action and never makes it entirely clear how much of what Roberto experiences is "real" and how much is fantasy. Indeed, Eco rather disconcertingly toys with the idea of the "reality" of the story as a whole. Structurally, Island is daring. Rather than relying on the device of a mystery to lead the reader along (as with Rose and Pendulum ), this book is a Bildungsroman-- the story of one man's education and psychological development. As such, it is less plot-driven (and hence, less likely to be made into a movie). Additionally, Island departs from its precursors with its magical-realism style and setting in the baroque, rather than medieval, period. Nevertheless, it shares with Eco's earlier novels a dizzying scope of arcane knowledge packed into a story both thought-provoking and surprisingly humorous. What remains compelling at the end of The Island of the Day Before is not so much Roberto's own story, but rather the excitement of an era in which all knowledge was in flux - an era, therefore, like our own.