Umberto Eco

Man Overboard

1600 and all that.


By Andrea Lee

New Yorker, August 21 & 28, 1995


IT 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.
"My 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."
The 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.
"The 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.

During 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."
Paradoxes 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.
At 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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