Fiction Reviews

The Island of the Day Before

(1994/5) Umberto Eco, Secker, 3.99, pbk, 515pp. ISBN 0-436-20270-4


This is the story of Roberto, a minor Renaissance nobleman who has the misfortune to be shipwrecked and washed up on a deserted ship. Inevitably, since Roberto has little to do on board, most of the action takes place in flashbacks: Roberto sees his father killed during a siege; Roberto becomes a gentleman in Paris society; Roberto is put aboard a ship as a spy to discover what the English know about longitude; and hence he comes to be in his current predicament.

What action does take place on the ship mainly concerns Roberto's attempts to reach the eponymous island, which is beyond the date meridian and hence in the previous day. The island becomes identified with Roberto's struggle to reach his lady, Lilia, with whom he fell in love while in Paris.

The book is also choc-a-bloc with philosophical digressions on contemporary subjects of greater or lesser relevance to the themes of the story. This is quite a usual feature of Eco's novels, but unfortunately here it seems that the story has been used as a vehicle for the digressions, rather than the digressions serving the story as they do in Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose. The fact that Eco tells the tale as if he is reconstructing it from Roberto's journal only serves to exacerbate this tendency, as he is unable to resist playing games in the meta-narrative.

Overall, while Island remains very readable due to Eco's strong abilities as a writer, it suffers in comparison with earlier novels because of its lack of narrative drive and a tendency to deploy the techniques of post-modernism to no purpose.

Matt Freestone

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