1995, Books, Fiction

The Island of the Day Before (1995) by Umberto Eco

This is a weird one, full of all of Eco’s typical obsessions but lacking many of the things that make some of his novels classics or, at the very, least enjoyable. I have read just over half his novels now, and this is my least favourite by a considerable margin.

This novel is clearly inspired by Robinson Crusoe but, unfortunately for me, it is also inspired by other novels of the time that I have not only never read but never even heard of. That’s a problem, which I will get into shortly. It’s also an exploration of 17th century science and, at times, that’s extremely fascinating. (As well as horrifying, in one instance.) As with Eco’s other work, it’s super meta, but that works (ahem) against the novel this time, in my view. There’s a lot going on here, possibly too much (for me anyway). And I really don’t think it’s executed well.

Eco at his best sells his obsessions to us, makes us care about them, because he tells a good story (The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum) and/or because he’s really funny (Baudolino). The stories here – both Robert’s own story and the tedious story Roberto makes up – are not compelling enough to get us to care about the rest of it. And this book is just not funny enough to make up for the fact that the stories kind of suck.

For me, the biggest problem is the Ferrante story within a story (within a story, seriously). Ferrante disappears for huge chunks of the book and then comes back at the climax. Eco acknowledges that he is parodying a convention but that acknowledgement doesn’t make this work any better. It’s super clunky and, honestly, I don’t think the Ferrante stuff adds anything to the book. I understand that people who care about this novel will have justifications for why the Ferrante stuff is absolutely necessary to Eco’s larger points about 17th century science and literature, but I don’t really care. For me, it just makes the whole thing longer and I’m fare less interested in this made up Evil Twin’s misadventures than I am in the reverse Robinson Crusoe main plot.

Another major issue for me, someone who is not so well-read in 17th century fictional literature, is that I do not know the objects of the satire/parody. And that makes it harder to appreciate. With some of Eco’s other novels, I knew some of them, crucially, the books were so well done (or funny) that it didn’t matter that I didn’t know all the various things he’s poking fun at. But here it matters a lot, because I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe in a very long time but, also, I haven’t read any of these other tales. So what he has to say about the narrative forms of the 17th century is nearly entirely lost on me. And he has executed his slapstick better in other books.

Honestly, this was one I was going to put down. The only reason I didn’t stop is because I kept telling myself “only X pages left” thinking it was somewhere closer to 400 than 500 pages (and clearly not looking at the total). Had I realized it was 500 pages to begin with, I’m not sure I would have made it beyond the point at which Roberto starts writing the Ferrante story.

My least favourite Eco novel to date.

5/10 just because it’s full of ideas

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