On the far side of the world, an Italian explorer ponders life, death, the universe and everything

March 31, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 31, 2014

The Island of the Day Before, the 1994 novel by Italian author Umberto Eco, is likely the most complicated book I have ever read from start to finish.

The convoluted tale opens with a most unlikely coincidence: Roberto della Griva washes up onto a deserted ship moored off an island in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the 17th century. Della Griva is the sole survivor of the Amaryllis, having been lashed to a makeshift raft by a sailor aboard that vessel amidst a violent storm. By some strange fortune, waves cary him to the Daphne, a seemingly abandoned Dutch expeditionary vessel.

Our protagonist is the lone heir of a minor nobleman who grows up on a large rural estate in territory that is variously ruled by French, Italian and Spanish forces. War summons a teenaged della Griva and his father from their quiet existence and claims the life of the elder man. Thus unmoored from home and family, the imaginative and fanciful Roberto is freed to pursue lively (and sometimes dreary) adventures — first in the salons of Paris and then on the far side of the world.

A powerful French cardinal commissions the distant voyage, dispatching della Griva to spy on one of his Amaryllis shipmates. Like its European rivals, France is interested in empire-building, and its rulers desperately want a key to world domination: The secret of determining longitude, or detecting how far east or west one is from a given point on the globe.

Calculating latitude, or north-south position, is a relatively simple matter, determined by measuring the angle of the sun or stars at a consistent time each day. Solving the mystery of longitude proved to be much harder (and the efforts of characters in The Island of the Day Before contribute nothing substantial to the project).

But Eco’s true quarry is more philosophic than scientific. Della Griva’s journey, which is ultimately undertaken by multiple reflections of his personality, gives the author free rein to muse on the nature of identity and time and on the essence of the universe.

Here’s a passage from relatively early in the book in which the shipwrecked della Griva considers the contrasts between his native land and his current surroundings:

The fact is, Roberto said to himself, both Art and Nature are fond of machination, and that is simply what the atoms themselves do when they aggregate in this way or in another. Is there any more artificed wonder than the tortoise, work of a goldsmith of thousands and thousands of years past, who fashioned this Achilles’ shield patiently nielloed, imprisoning a serpent with its feet?

At home, he continued his musing, everything that is vegetal life has the frailty of a leaf with its veins and of the flower that lasts the space of a morning; whereas here the vegetal is like leather, a thick and oily matter, a scaly sheath prepared to resist the rays of mad suns. Every leaf — in these lands where the wild inhabitants surely do not know the art of metals or of clays — could become instrument, blade, goblet, spatula, and the petals of the flowers are of lacquer. Everything vegetal here is strong, while everything animal is weak, to judge by the birds I have seen, spun from varicolored glass, while at home we have the strength of the horse, the stubborn steadiness of the ox…

And what of fruits? At home the complexion of the apple, ruddy with health, denotes its friendly taste, whereas the livid mushroom betrays its hidden venom. Here, on the contrary, as I saw yesterday and during the voyage of the Amaryllis, there is the witty play of opposites: the mortuary white of one fruit guarantees vivid sweetness, whereas the more russet fruits may secrete lethal philters.

If the text here, translated from Italian by William Weaver, strikes you as high-flown, bear in mind that this is a relatively simple passage. Eco laces his language with abstruse Latin, German, Italian and French terms, some of which seem to require expertise in medieval history or philosophy to define. Try this description of a fantastical device called the Specula Melitensis, which is being delivered by a clergyman based on a document once seen by a fellow of his religious member:

What the Specula was like, no one had ever seen: the first brother left only a booklet of sketches and notes, which for that matter had now disappeared. And, on the other hand, Caspar complained, that same opuscule “was brevissimamente script, con nullo schemata visualiter patefacto, nulle table nec rotule, ind null specialis instructione.”

On the basis of that meager information Father Caspar, in the course of the long voyage on the Daphne, setting the ship’s carpenters to work, had redesigned or else misconstructed the various elements of the technasma, mounting them then on the Island and measuring, in situ, its countless virtues — and the Specula must truly have been an Ars Magna in flesh and blood, or, rather, in wood, iron, canvas, and other substances, a kind of Megahorologium, an Animated Book capable of revealing all the mysteries of the Universe.

It was — Father Caspar said, his eyes glowing like carbuncles — a Unique Syntagma of Novissimi Instrumenti Physici et Mathematici, “in rotas and cycles artfully disposed.” Then he drew on the deck or in the air with his finger, and bade Roberto to think of a circular first element, a kind of base or foundation which showed the Immobile Horizon, with the Rhomb of the Thirty-two Winds and all the Ars Navigatoria with forecasts of every storm.

The paragraph continues — the description stretches nearly two additional pages, in fact.

(It bears mentioning that the preceding passage consists of a man describing a device that he built based on inscrutable, briefly seen documents, and that this account is being filtered not only through the writings of della Griva but through the author-narrator, who purports to base this novel on della Griva’s manuscript. And, of course, all of this is further filtered through the eyes of the man who translated Eco’s writing. Shades of Plato’s cave…!)

A key character in the novel is della Griva’s imaginary twin, Ferrante, who threatens to cross over into reality, as fictitious elements often do. Many of the book’s exploits involve this devious figure, whose betrayals threaten della Griva, della Griva’s impossibly distant would-be lover and even the Christian Messiah, Jesus himself. (Several passages in the volume question whether humanity’s existence, and its subsequent purported redemption by Jesus, might be unique.)

Unfortunately, a key conceit in this book is rather maddening. Della Griva comes to believe that he is situated on what today we would call the international dateline — the meridian immediately west of which it might be 1 p.m. on Wednesday and immediately east of which it might be 1 p.m. on Thursday. Further, the characters conclude that to step across this dividing line is to travel 24 hours in time rather than simply to experience a shift in an arbitrary system that people use to measure time.

This is by turns a charming and silly delusion, but it is certainly a delusion, and it can be frustrating to indulge della Griva’s belief, upon which many important plot points hinge.

After much labor, I finished reading The Island of the Day Before, and I discovered many wonders therein. The book features several awe-inspiring excursions: an underwater exploration, a journey into the furthest caverns of Paris’ network of bandit-ruled sewers and a tour of several fantastic Pacific islands, for instance. There is also some cringe-inducing cruelty — the fluke killing of a friend of della Griva’s, for instance, and the torture inflicted upon an animal and a person who are used as experimental subjects in a quixotic attempt to measure longitude.

But taken as a whole, The Island of the Day Before was for me more infuriating than enjoyable. The key word to describe the experience here is labor: Reading this brilliant 500-page-long novel requires a great deal of work, and the payoff probably isn’t worth it for most readers who lack a background or interest in the subject matter.

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