What I’m Reading: Umberto Eco – The Island of the Day Before

This is going to be even less of a review than my usual posts on this blog; due to the complexity of the novel and it being a while since I finished reading it (Yes, I know. I’ve been lazy. And sick.), I won’t even try for any semblance of coherency here and instead just throw out some thought-crumbs in your direction (which will likely be stale, but I promise that they will not be poisoned).

The Island of the Day Before (which I read in German translation, as all the Italian I know are some bits and pieces I have picked up from listening to operas) is by content, form and intention a historical novels, and yet is is quite different from most (or possibly any) historical novels you might have read. From Walter Scott’s Waverly onwards, historical fiction has aimed to either give a close-up view of important historical events and personalities, or else to paint a vivid picture of what life in a certain period was like, to bring the past back to life in the reader’s imagination. (Note: I’m aware that this is a simplification, but I think you’ll find that the vast majority of historical fiction – which is, after all, a very popular genre – can be subsumed under one of those two main categories.) Eco’s novel, on the other hand, does something quite different instead; it does not attempt to depict the life in his chosen period (roughly the middle of the seventeenth century), does not really concern itself much with its physical reality at all, but instead describes the period’s ideas, or more precisely, the way those ideas structured and ordered the worldview of its contemporaries.

This might be seen as a continuation of the debate with the early work of Michel Foucault that was central to Eco’s previous novel, Foucault’s Pendulum (and, yes, I’m aware that the Foucault referenced in that title is not the 20th-century French philosopher… except that, in a way, he is). It would certainly be possible to argue that The Island of the Day Before aims for a description of the Baroque épisteme (not unlike Peter Greenaway’s movie The Draughtsman’s Contract, to which Eco’s novel indeed does bear some similarities), although I personally feel more inclined to see the influence of Hans Blumenberg at work here, in particularly the short but utterly brilliant and eminently read-worthy Shipwreck with Spectator.

It’s not quite correct to say that The Island of the Before describes a certain historical view of the world, though – that is what Foucault and Blumenberg did, being philosophers. Eco, being a novelist (or at least wearing his novelist’s hat here, although Eco the semiologist definitely has the occasional cameo appearance), rather embodies it: The Island of the Day Before is just the kind of huge, sprawling, colourful, digressive, funny, erudite monster of a narrative that Baroque authors (and, one assumes, readers) so loved. In contrast to Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, Eco does not attempt to get at the heart of what the period was about by way of (more or less) realistic mimesitic narrative, by basically writing a 19th-century novel about the 17th century, but by having his novel become a 17th novel instead (which is, of course, and quite ironically, very much a 20th century maneuvre), and indeed suceeds where Stephenson fails.

This is not a novel of surprising plots twists, then (although what plot there is does twist quite a bit, and there are some surprises along the way, too), nor a novel of deep characterisation (although it is populated by some rather fascinating characters), nor a novel of lavish descriptions (although – as much as I was able to judge this, reading a translation – the prose seems quite wonderful, moving with ease between a drier, reticient style and the exuberance of Baroque pastiche), but it is first and foremost a novel of ideas, and is likely to appeal most to readers who are intellectually curious, who like to be served some cerebral meat to sink their mind’s teeth into (my apologies for the metaphor)  and enjoy exploring concepts, following them down to their last ramifications. Or else academics.

Thomas Mann, the undisputed master of the novel of ideas, is indeed another huge influence here; Roberto reminded me more than once of Hans Castorp, the siege of Casale reads almost like a Baroque version of the Zauberberg, including its own versions of Naphta and Settembrini, and Wanderdrossel’d dialogue sounds (at least in the German translation) uncannily like the devil in Doktor Faustus. All this juggling of influences and proliferation of references (of which I have barely scratched the surface here) is by no means gratuitous but is very distintive for the literature of the period that prided itself on its erudition (while today’s authors, one often feels, tend to be rather embarrassed by it, unless it is pop culture they are referencing to).

All of this might give one the impression that The Island of the Day Before is basically a faux-Baroque novel, a mere pastiche of period literature, but that would very misleading. True, there is a Baroque novel at the hear of Eco’s – but the reader gets to see it only in brief glimpses. Because the book does not present us with Roberto’s chronicle of events, but instead with a chronicle of that chronicle, done by a narrator who is probably the most fascinating and enigmatic character to appear here. I found it very hard to place him in a definite period – while there is never a doubt that he is to be situated some time after Roberto, it never becomes quite clear as to how much afterwards. Early in the novel, the narrator analyses Roberto’s character in terms of the Four Temperaments and their associated humours which would lead one to believe that he must be almost contemporary with Roberto. But near the novel’s end, he mentions Hollywood, which would place him in the 20th century at the earliest. This is never explicitely resolved, and it is left to the reader to make sense of it; my own theory is that the narrator actually evolves during the course of the novel and is not the same at the end as he was at the beginning, and that this development is accompanied by that of the narrative strategies he employs and which seem to increasingly take a turn towards the modern as the novel progresses. But there are doubtlessly other explanations for this, and maybe I just imagined something which is not really there at all…

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