The Island of the Day Before. Umberto Eco. 1994
The story background is set in Italy in the XVII Century during the Spanish domination and the European states competition for the conquest of the seas. At a time when science was defying religion attempting to establish a new configuration to relate to the world. The adventure of the main character, the Piedmontese Roberto de la Grive, starts in the summer of 1643 when after the wreck of the ship Amarilli, he marooned on a deserted ship, the Daphne.
The space of the story is then this ship that he then finds to be hardly desert: in fact it hides many surprises such as a kind of greenhouse, a room full of clocks and two indefinite presences that reveal themselves progressively as his imaginary alter ego Ferrante and the old Jesuit Caspar.
Roberto’s adventure belongs to the genre of Robinsonade, those tales that are inspired by Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, telling the story of a person who was isolated from civilisation by an unexpected event. Then in order to survive they have to learn how to live in a hostile environment trusting only on their strengths and knowledge. The particularity and geniality of Eco’s novel lies in the choice of the place where he decided to set Roberto’s isolation.
The Daphne is in a harbour through which, Roberto thinks, runs the International Date Line, the same line that had allowed Phileas Fogg in Julius Verne novel to win his bet by doing the tour of the world in 80 days and not in the 81 as he had counted. In fact, one crossing this line from west to east has to maintain the same time of the previous day while one crossing it from East to West has to switch the date to the day after.
Today this is common knowledge but back in the XVII century the location of the Greenwich Antimeridian was a mystery, yet something to pursue as it would have allowed to calculate navigation better and to cast light on a world that was about to become part of an infinitive universe.
Therefore, the particularity of the book lies, on one side, in dating the Roberto’s adventure in the XVII Century when humanity, thanks to scientific progress, is about to discover that it is not the centre of the universe and that it is about to enter the ontological relativism of modern age; and, on the other side, in choosing a location able to represent these modern issues in a concrete fashion, showing the volatility of space and time conventions the humanity was used to measuring hence perceivin the world by.
“Now, spectator from antipode of the infinitive ocean seaway, he caught sight of an unlimited horizon. And over his head he saw unseen constellations. Those of his hemisphere, he was always been able to read by the images that others had outlined, here is the polygonal symmetry of the Ursa Major, there is the alphabetic accuracy of Cassiopeia. But on the Daphne he did not have any ready figures, he was able to connects the dots freely, getting the image of a snake, of a giant, of a crown or of a poisonous insect tail, to then undo them and go for other shapes.”
When reading this marvellous and complex novel one gets the impression of being in the right place to comprehend the complexity of the universe and ourselves. The narrative depth of Eco’s prose mirrors this epistemological effort that can hardly expected to be an easy experience as it recalls the spirit of explorers the book aim at connecting us with.
As we connect to it, space and time dissolve into wonderful imaginative digressions where individual experience seems to harmonise with the surrounding environment while signs, symbols, memories and visions create the possibility for new conceptual connections mirrored splendidly by Roberto’s attempt to imagine new constellations by connecting stars never seen before.