Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Island of the Day Before

now finished: The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco was one of the sure bets in my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project to make the top half, in which I am revisiting my top 13 authors by reading another book of theirs. The book I read for 'E' is for Eco during the original project, The Name of the Rose, was so perfectly what I expected it to be -- including interesting and good, along with much more -- that I became convinced he would continue to be perfectly what I expected of him in his other works. I had always thought I'd read Foucault's Pendulum  next, it being so "the other book by Umberto Eco" famous and all, and I've even touched it many a time, but instead I am in hanging out in Phoenix and my local branch of the library had The Island of the Day Before on the shelf and I was there and could have put a request for the Pendulum to be transferred from another branch but The Island of the Day Before was about a man shipwrecked on a ship, and it was blue...I like blue things...

OK, so this was a strange book.

I can truly appreciate the Goodreads reviewer who referred to its "150 page screening process to weed out the unworthy."  I really did not know what was happening for quite some time and I wasn't sure if I was enjoying the book at all, but it ends up getting kind of trippy and good, at least in parts.

I know, I know, it doesn't sound like a very enthusiastic recommendation, and there are so many of you who are all like, "I ain't gonna work to read a book" and that's fine, just go on back to your Hunger Games, now, really. Run along. Umberto Eco melds philosophy and whimsy and wink-wink cleverness and social criticism and story and literary allusions (including to himself) and some weirdness and some history and god knows what all else. There is no "OMG I literally hunger for these games" here.

Sometimes The Island of the Day Before is straightforwardly clever, such as when Roberto della Griva's father advises him, "Well, war's an ugly animal, that's sure. Anyway, my son, never forget: always be good, but if somebody comes at you and means to kill you, then he's in the wrong. Am I right?" - p. 51 

Sometimes it's wry:  "He was now so sure an Intruder was on board that his first thought was this: Finally he had proof he was not drunk. Which is, after all, the proof drunks constantly seek." - p. 200

Sometimes there's a kind of winking sympathy directed at the reader: "We could say that Roberto had definitely lost his mind, and with very good reason; no matter how he calculated, the figures would not add up. The paradoxes of time can indeed unhinge us." -p. 338   This basically sums up the experience of the main character and yet also the reader of the book.

I personally think the book became excellent when he started philosophizing with Father Caspar about religion, swimming, the universe, and so on.

And really, who else but Umberto Eco could use the word "hircocervi"? I mean, sure, he wrote in Italian and the translator used the word "hircocervi," but the Italian could very well be the same, and I'm sure you get my larger point. Who writes about hircocervi, mentioned in a passing metaphor? Umberto Eco, that's who.

Have I mentioned that the ship on which Roberto della Griva is shipwrecked, as well as the island he can see but can't swim to, as well as the story he is writing, as well as a few other things are these incredibly layered metaphors?  Have I mentioned that "the day before" refers to the international date line, which thoroughly trips out our hero Roberto, as he thinks about the ramifications of swimming to yesterday?  Have you ever thought about how central figuring out longitude calculations can be to life on Earth as we know it?  These days, we see how nuts some religious folks can be about evolutionary biology, dinosaurs, and prayer before football games. I thought about that as our characters grappled with what longitude says about papal conceptions of Earth's place in the universe, and as they matter-of-factly discoursed on whether God created infinite worlds and the meaning of atoms, The Void, and all being essentially being nothing.
Some books are easy to talk about. This isn't one of them. I enthusiastically recommend this book, but unlike The Name of the Rose, the list of  people to whom I'd recommend this one is pretty small.

Page numbers I cited are from ISBN 0-14-0259198

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