By Andrea Lee
New Yorker, August 21 & 28, 1995
is intensely appealing to imagine Umberto Eco researching his
latest novel, The Island of the Day Before to imagine
his rotund frame bobbing in the tropical waters of the Fiji Islands,
where the novel is set, as he learns how to swim all over again
according to a seventeenth-century manual on the sport. It satisfies
the desire we harbor deep down inside for an author to be a crank,
preferably in exotic surroundings. Beyond that, it tempts one
to write a novel about the writing of this novel, thus mimicking
those worlds within worlds with which ECO'S work abounds-- or,
at least, to write a few verses on the aquatic ECO, in the style
of the great Metaphysical poets. One could, for example, draw
inspiration from Eco's own penchant for arcane devices and depict
the scholar of symbols as a semiotic cork -- one of those corks,
perhaps, that science-minded children stick on the ends of needles
and float on water as part of homemade compasses. This combination
of navigation and metaphysics would come close to the heart of
The Island of the Day Before, to be published by Harcourt
Brace in November, in a translation by William Weaver. In it,
Eco has abandoned his familiar Middle Ages to create an extravagant
celebration of the obsessions of the seventeenth century.
taste for the sixteen-hundreds is something that has existed
for a long time," Mr. Eco says during a phone conversation
from his apartment in Paris. "But the initial thought wasn't
the period. My first idea was simply not to write a novel that
spoke of books, libraries, and ideas, like the first two. I asked
myself almost as a challenge whether I was capable of writing
about nature. Where does one talk about nature? Why, on a deserted
isle, of course."
hero of the novel, the Italian nobleman Roberto della Griva,
finds himself in a condition not unfamiliar in the literature
of the Baroque period: shipwrecked in tropic seas. (Loosely translated,
della Griva means "Robin's son.") He has washed up
not on land, however, but on a mysterious deserted ship moored
near an unreachable island -- he can't swim -- that seems to
lie by the hundred-and-eightieth degree of longitude, the imaginary
line that divides one day from another. Eco recounts that in
the seventeenth century this Punto Fijo, or fixed point, from
which all other longitudes could be established, was the object
of an international quest by rival European maritime powers.
second idea came," Eco says, "when I was buying one
of those world-time watches, saw that the date line passed through
the Fiji Islands, and recalled that much of the history of establishing
longitudes went on in the sixteen-hundreds." As della Griva
broods on his past life, contemplates the date line, explores
the labyrinthine and extremely metaphoric ship, and plots ways
to get to the still more metaphoric island, he offers Eco the
opportunity for a thousand anecdotes, explanations, asides, trills,
runs, and flourishes on the philosophy, geography, lovemaking,
scientific theory, cookery, politics, superstition, and warfare
of the time-- in short, a set of baroque variations on the Baroque.
Essential to an understanding of everything else, Eco suggests,
is a notion of the importance of imagery in daily life:
The people of that period considered
it indispensable to translate the whole world into a forest of
Symbols, Hints, Equestrian Games, Masquerades, Paintings, Courtly
Arms, Trophies, Blazons, Escutcheons, Ironic Figures, Sculpted
Obverses of Coins, Fables, Allegories, Apologias, Epigrams, Riddles,
Equivocations, Proverbs, Watchwords, Laconic Epistles, Epitaphs,
Parerga, Lapidary Engravings, Shields, Glyphs, Clipei, and if
I may, I will stop here -- but they did not stop.
his research, Eco consulted antique travel books and reread the
work of European seventeenth-century poets. Along the way, he
discovered a day-by-day chronicle of the siege of a Northern
Italian city, a peculiarly civilized conflict, which he immediately
included in della Griva's past life. He drew a complex diagram
of the mysterious ship. And he travelled to the Fiji Islands
and tried the swimming manual in order to understand what his
hero might experience. "It was hard," he says, "to
learn how not to swim."
multiply in The Island of the Day Before, which, like
Robinson Crusoe, is partly a story of spiritual awakening.
Della Griva has had from his youth a talent for absorbing contradictory
truths "as if he were a sponge." Caught in the Antipodes,
where it was popularly believed that the common truths of the
Northern world were stood on their heads, and stranded on the
meridian that divides one day from the next, he finds himself
on the borderline between past and present, dream and reality.
His mind swirls with the oxymoronic imagery of his era, where
the poetic lover is in sickly health and burns with cold fire.
He contemplates memories of the siege, in which the adversaries
mingled with curious freedom; a love affair in which intimacy
was achieved through distance; a universal "Powder of Sympathy"
that heals wounds when it is applied to the weapons that caused
them. He ponders the irony in being marooned not on an island
but on a ship. In the end, he achieves a sort of liberation in
a unifying vision that grasps the eternal flux of the universe,
and the folly and suffering inherent in groping for a Punto Fijo.
one point, musing on his own ideas, della Griva observes that
"he was composing a dish that had too many ingredients."
This could certainly be said of the book as a whole, which often
resembles an enormous metaphysical pie, stuffed to bursting with
esoteric elements. There are comic Jesuits; florid-tongued courtiers;
Rube Goldberg-ish contraptions for the study of inner and outer
worlds; guest appearances by Mazarin, Richelieu, and an incognito
Pascal; a Solomonic orange dove, who symbolizes Christ and the
philosopher's stone and the eternally desired other, and who
occupies an entire chapter; and, tossed almost incidentally into
the mix, Judas Iscariot and the possible perdition of all mankind.
Missing are the Holy Grail and the Shroud of Turin, but Eco has
not omitted The Golden Bough. As it is, however, his novel
pays tribute to the engaging jumble of fact and fancy found in
the encyclopedic treatises of the time. The rewards the reader
draws from such works are quirky and unexpected -- much like
the upside-down pleasures of life in Eco's Antipodes.
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