By Umberto Eco.
Translated from the Italian L’ISOLA DEL GIORNA PRIMA
By William Weaver.
New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
ISBN # 0-15-100151-0.
513 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2004

I normally begin my comments on a novel with a few relatively non-revelatory notes about the plot. With Umberto Eco this will not be sufficient. I’ve read all three of his novels (THE NAME OF THE ROSE and FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM are the earlier two). In each there are multiple plots, each somewhat related but separable. Thus were I to follow my usual pattern which plot do I present? Which is really central?

The novel is a cornucopia of dazzling writing and thinking. Each of the shorter treatments is beautifully constructed and intellectually challenging, as well as revelatory of mid-17th century thought and manner; each a vehicle of Eco’s stunning writing, insights and scholarship.

To say the least Umberto Eco’s THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE is rich, demanding, stimulating, scandalously and deliciously indulgent, and extremely well-crafted and written.

Hollywood film makers took THE NAME OF THE ROSE, stripped it down to the semi-horror murder mystery and lost virtually everything of significance in that novel, even if they did create a marvelous role for Sean Connery.

I don’t want to do a version of this over-simplification by just following the (seemingly) main story line as the film makers did with that work. Yet a full treatment of each line of the novel would be too extensive. I’ll try some balancing act in between.

I’ll begin with the main story line giving as little of the plot development as possible so as not spoil anyone’s reading, still hopefully giving enough of it to tweak interest and describe what the book is about on one level. Then along the way I’ll mention some thoughts I have on lesser plots and other aspects of the novel.

The basic structure of the novel is complex and delightful. A narrator, at times an undisguised Umberto Eco, has come into possession of a manuscript written in the 1640s by Roberto della Griva. Roberto’s letters to his lady love, Lilia and other notes and entries are sketchy and few, but the narrator struggles to flesh them out into a the full history of Roberto. This is a 512 page novel and one gets the impression that Roberto’s writings might comprise 30-50 pages, even less, the rest the narrator fills in with surmise, logic, his profound understanding of the time and his direct conversations with us the readers. It’s a brilliant tour de force.

As the novel opens Roberto is writing to the woman he loves, Lady Lilia in Paris. He worships her, had tried to woo her, but she doesn’t take him seriously in the slightest. Of course she never receives these letters, but somehow Roberto’s opus survives and ends up in the hands of our narrator some 450 years later.

Roberto had sailed on an English ship the Amaryllis. He was blackmailed into going on this voyage as a French spy in the service of Cardinal Richelieu. What is at stake is discovering the secret of how to calculate and measure longitudes. Measuring latitudes had long been done. The first nation to unlock the secret of longitudes would better control the globe by accurate mapping and having a great advantage in this age of discovery.

Roberto has had bad luck at sea. His ship and all aboard save himself were destroyed by a storm. He survived by strapping himself to a door. This door eventually bumps into a Dutch ship, the Daphne which is anchored between an island and a continent, an equi-distant swim to either and Roberto can’t swim. He is trapped. The ship itself is mysteriously abandoned, in full sail with massive provisions and other fantastic cargo. However, the long-boat and (seemingly) all on board are gone.

The opening lines set up stage:

I take pride in my humiliations and as I am to this privilege condemned, almost I find joy in an abhorrent salvation. I am, I believe, alone of all our race, the only man in human memory to have been shipwrecked and cast up upon a deserted ship.

He then begins his letters to Lilia, revealing all the above and much more of his previous life to explain to her how he ended up in this situation.

Born noble in Italy to indulgent parents, he created a fictional identical twin brother, Ferrante, on whom he blamed any and all of his childish indiscretions. His parents found this cute and tolerated it. However, it becomes clear in the letters, though less clear to Roberto, that he gradually blurs the distinction between the reality and fiction of Ferrante’s existence.

In his teens there is a long siege of Casale where he father is killed and he arises to maturity. France is Italy’s ally in this battle and one enemy Spanish nobleman warrior looks very much like Roberto, thus Ferrante’s “existence” is transformed into a Spaniard, but just as quickly disappears only to reappear much later in the story.

Roberto returns to Paris with the French, enters the society of witty, urbane and irreverent philosophes and falls in love with the unsuspecting and unreceptive Lilia. He also says some politically unwise things in evening soirées, mainly to show off for Lilia, and gets thrown into prison.

He then comes to the attention of Cardinal Mazaran, Richelieu’s right hand man because of his dangerous political views, and his great ability with languages, speaking not only his native Italian, but French and English without accent as well as a bit of German.

Marzaran offers him escape only if he becomes a spy on an English ship which is on some secret mission. Thus Roberto ends up on the ill-fated Amaryllis, shipwrecked and then the only castaway washing up not to land, but to the anchored Daphne – stuck upon the sea in sight of land. However, he has learned the secret of the English mission – to discover how to measure longitude. The English ship was attempting to find the Solomon Islands not for their own sake, but to learn how to use them as the key to longitude. Later, from Father Caspar Wanderdrossel he learns that this was the identical mission of the Daphne, on which Roberto is stranded.

A significant portion of the novel centers around this question of the measuring of longitude. The measure of latitude was well-established by 1640. However, to make truly accurate maps and gain an enormous upper hand in the race of Europeans powers to “discover,” and more importantly to claim lands, learning to accurately measure longitude was necessary.

There was still a good deal of intermix of Biblical knowledge and science in these times and it was believed the Solomon Islands were on the prime meridian, having been mentioned by Solomon in the Bible. Thus they believed they had a fixed longitude. The race to Solomons was on.

Caspar Wanderdrossel also educates Roberto to other incredible methods being used to seek this measure. I found the method via eclipses to be fascinating. The Roman Catholic Church had established a “universal clock” in Rome. Using this standard for time, Jesuit missionaries round the world would be trained to careful scientific recording. They would then report with accuracy the time of lunar eclipses from many places in the world, allowing accurate relative times of the eclipses and from those times distances and longitudes could be computed. So clever!

Roberto writes on in his letter to Lilia, then he has a life-altering fit of jealousy. He began to imagine that his (fictional) twin Ferrante was posing as him, Roberto, to win over Lilia. He can’t live with this jealousy and the last long portion of the novel is a novel within the novel, a romance, in which Roberto will “deal” with Ferrante by writing the story of the undoing of Ferrante. In this romance, this fiction within Eco’s fiction, reality and fiction get hopelessly intertwined and the book winds to a strange ending.

I seem to have detailed much more of the plot than I intended. Yes, in that the bare bones story line is give. But no, in that the real richness of Eco’s novel is in the telling, the fascinating and bizarre characters, the details of mid-17th century science and the wonderful philosophical discussions on the interrelationship between individual perception and objective and universal reality. I’ll leave these joys to the individual reader though I can’t resist sharing a few “teasers” of Eco’s witty and delightful writing

On old age Father Caspar Wanderdrossel speaking of himself says:

… his body was nothing but a withering of the cutis, a diminishing of the sight, a besnotting of the nose, a whispering of the ears, a yellowing of the teeth, a stiffening of the spine, a wattling of the throat, a gouting of the heels, a spotting of the complexion, a whitening of the locks, a creaking of the tibias, a trembling of the fingers, a stumbling of the feet, and his breast was all one purging of catarrhs amid the coughing of phlegm and the spitting of sputum.

Roberto trying to learn to swim to get the mile needed from ship to shore:

In the days that followed, Roberto, staying on the side with the ladder, remembered how at La Griva he had seen not only dogs swim but also frogs. And since a human body in the water, with arms and legs outspread, recalls more the shape of a frog than that of a dog, he told himself that perhaps he should swim like a frog. He even assisted himself vocally, crying croax, croax, as he flung out his arms and legs. He stopped croaking when those animal utterances had the effect of giving too much energy to his forward bound, causing him to open his mouth, with the consequences that an experienced swimmer might have foreseen.

He transformed himself into an elderly, decorous frog, majestically silent. When he felt his shoulders tiring, through that constant outward movement of the hands, he returned to more canino. Once, looking at the white birds that followed his exercises, vociferating sometimes diving only a few feet from him to snatch a fish (the coup de la mouette!), he tried also to swim as they flew, with a broad wing- like movement of his arms, but learned that it is harder to keep a mouth and nose closed than it is a beak, and he gave up the idea. At this point he no longer knew what animal he was, a dog or frog, perhaps a hairy toad, an amphibious quadruped, a centaur of the sea, a male siren.

However, in all these various attempts, he noticed that he was moving, more or less.

Roberto has for ten months not been able to tolerate daylight but finally comes up from the lower deck into the sunlight of the top deck. So we many assume that gradually, perhaps through the therapeutic action of that balmy air or that sea water, Roberto was cured of a complaint that, real or imagined, had turned him into a lycanthrope for more than ten months (unless the reader choose 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.)

Roberto is, in a sense an everyman – not, however a commoner, but reasonably educated and privileged (as are most of Eco’s readers) who is used to weaving an entertaining story of how such a 17th century man would understand and explore the world.

In closing I acknowledge a lacuna – I’ve chosen to say nothing about the title. That tidbit, so critical to Roberto’s weak understanding of the sciences of his time, is part of the charm of discovery in exploring this delightfully rich novel.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett