The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver 
(Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2006. 528pp)Umberto Eco was born January 5, 1932 and is a Knight Grand Cross of the Italian Republic. He is the founder of the Dipartimento di Comunicazione at the University of San Marino, an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, and is best known for his novels The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery. He is also President of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici at the University of Bologna, and a member of the Accademia dei Lincei. In addition to fiction, he has also written both academic texts on literary theory and children’s books.

William Weaver is best known for his translations of Umberto Eco and Italio Calvino. He has been translating Italian authors for over fifty years. He also works as a critic and commentator for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Weaver was a professor at Bard College in New York, and was a Bard Center Fellow. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Leicester in the UK, and Trinity College in addition to his postgraduate study at the University of Rome, and his B.A. from Princeton University. He has several original works mainly revolving around the librettos of Verdi and Puccini.

Ouch!

Disclaimer! My brain hurts, and I will admit that it took me a bit to get interested in The Island of the Day Before. However, after I realized that my constant companion while reading this book would be a dictionary, the book became much more intriguing. The problem, truthfully, is that not only is the writing very deep and complex, but it is also originally in Italian. So, the English translation is a little hard to grasp at times. In addition, the novel isn’t really what I thought it would be: an adventure to an island of the day before, as the title implies. Rather, it is more of a philosophical introspection.

Reading a Journal

The Island of the Day Before is Eco’s third novel, and focuses on a 17th century Italian nobleman, Roberto della Griva, who is the sole survivor of a terrible stormy gale. He becomes marooned on an island, and can see an island that is in the distance which he is convinced is on the other side of the International Date Line. Roberto wants to visit it, as he believes going to the island will fix all his woes. But, he is deathly afraid to swim to it.

Photo by John A Ryan

Shipwrecked and swept from his ship, the Amaryllis, he manages to pull himself aboard the fully provisioned ship Daphne, anchored in the bay of a beautiful island. Della Griva goes through a series of flashbacks of a metacognitive nature. The ship is eerily quiet, as if the entire crew fled some terrible specter. We, the reader, get to view Roberto’s journey through the eyes of a modern narrator who has found della Griva’s journal on board the derelict ship. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see Roberto as he questions truth, reality, and the overall meaning of life.

“From the way he recalls it on the Daphne, I tend to believe that at Casale, while he lost both his father and himself in a war of too many meanings and of no meaning at all, Roberto learned to see the universal world as a fragile tissue of enigmas, beyond which there was no longer an Author; or if there was, He seemed lost in the remaking of Himself from too many perspectives. If there Roberto had sensed a world now without any center, made up only of perimeters, here he felt himself truly in the most extreme and most lost of peripheries, because, if there was a center, it lay before him, and he was its immobile satellite” (145-146).

We can also hear of loves lost through some guile on the part of another,

“Oh Love, Love, Love, have you not punished me enough already, is this not a death undying?” (385).

The loss of love is merely one of the finer points of life that Eco gets to discuss through this novel, and he talks about it in a truly poetic way. Love can punish more than a simple death, as it is an ongoing process. Death is but once; the loss of a love is revisited time and time again in painful agony.

Semiotics

Umberto Eco is a big fan of semiotics – the study of signs in language. Eco seems particularly fond of the specific part of semiotics called pragmatics, the study of signs and the effects they have on the people who use them. Eco even takes the liberty within his novel to educate the reader on semiotics. He talks to the reader directly about the plot, not as the narrator, but instead as Umberto Eco himself.

“So we may assume that gradually, perhaps through the therapeutic action of that balmy air or that sea water, Robert was cured of a complaint that, real or imagined, had turned him into a lycanthrope for more than ten months (unless the reader chooses to insinuate that because from now on I need him on deck full-time, and finding no contradiction among his papers, I am freeing him from all illness, with authorial arrogance)” (280).

A Work in a Work

Eco seems to love blurring his fictional writing with a dialogue in reality as well. While extremely confusing at the time, his references to other works of fiction are rather refreshing. And, of course, what better fiction to reference than his own, such as the notes of Adso of Melk from The Name of the Rose (played by Christian Slater in the movie version of the novel)?

“For the captain it was obvious that the books, having belonged to a plague victim, were agents of infection. The plague is transmitted, as everyone knows, through venenific unguents, and he had read of people who died by wetting a finger with saliva as they leafed through works whose pages had in fact been smeared with a poison” (248).

Photo by Justin Kent

For those that don’t know, in The Name of the Rose, the pages of a journal were poisoned, so that those who read it, and turn the pages by licking their fingers are killed. The canadian rock group Arcade Fire even references the famed passage in the song Neon Bible.

“Take the poison of your age / Don’t lick your fingers when you turn the page”

I also found references to The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers in the novel. It certainly seems like Eco wants to educate the reader in general works of fiction as he writes.

Space, Time, and Beauty

One of the larger themes in the novel is the concept of time. Is time able to be manipulated, or is it constant? Can one travel to the day before? Roberto is convinced that his troubles will end if only he could travel to the day before. He would no longer find himself marooned, and would no longer be forced to boringly reminisce about his past life. But, the island in the distance seemingly moves farther away from him.

“Indeed, as he sees it distant not only in space but also (backwards) in time, from this moment on, whenever he mentions that distance, Roberto seems to confuse space and time, and he writes, ‘The bay, alas, is too yesterday,’ and ,’How much sea separates me from the day barely ended,’ and even, ‘Threatening rainclouds are coming from the Island, whereas today it is already clear . . . . But if the Island moves ever farther away, is it still worth the effort to learn to reach it?’” (362).

This quote encapsulates for me the beauty of this novel. While there is much to be discussed in the way of academia, semiotics, and the like, his poetic writing is what makes the novel simply great to read. Eco blends his poetic hand with some terribly mind-bending concepts. The Island of the Day Before is truly beautifully written, and Eco’s expert prose makes it fly off the page. The tome is incredibly thought provoking and it forces the reader to think about the finer things in life.

Although The Island of the Day Before is hard to read, if you have some resilience and a dictionary, I strongly recommend you read it.


Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian School in Bellevue, WA. He holds an M.M. in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a B.M. in Music Education from the University of Washington. He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies. You can reach him via email at arjacobson@gmail.com.

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  • debd

    I thoroughly loved “The Name of the Rose” but could not get into this book. It's been a while since I attempted it and I don't remember how far I got before I gave up. Then I tried “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” and really hated that one. Maybe I should give “Island of the Day Before” another chance. Thanks for your review.

  • Andrew Jacobson

    Thanks for your support! I think “name of the rose” is by far his most accessible novel. I think this is easier than the rest, and “mysterious fame” is a big academic commentary on semiotics, not so much a story. Eco takes some work, and always will.

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