Melting into Air

The Island of the Day Before

by Umberto Eco, translated from Italian by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace, 515 pp., $25.00

Of Love and Other Demons

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman
Knopf, 147 pp., $21.00

We know there is one branch of fiction, godfathered by Kafka and Borges, which has abandoned the pretense that it really happened for fantasy and joke, miracle and fairy tale. “It’s all a magic trick,” its authors say. “See how I do it?” This is fun, and often clever; but, like other forms of modern experimenting (“A chair doesn’t really look like this”), it makes it less easy than with writers of realistic fiction to sort out the masters from the copyists and the frauds. Not everyone who waves a wand is a Prospero.

The Tempest, along with Gulliver’s Travels, The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Ancient Mariner, and no doubt many Italian classics, certainly lurks behind Umberto Eco’s third magical blockbuster (are they really getting longer, or does it just seem so?). Before the sensational success of The Name of the Rose in 1981, Eco, as professor of semiotics in Bologna, already had much learned work to his name. He has said that he wrote the book on request, as a kind of challenge. As a medieval mystery thriller it had enough real narrative (borrowed postmodernly, no doubt, from Agatha Christie) and enough passion for the spirit of the fourteenth century (this is Eco’s period) to catch on and even to film well. Foucault’s Pendulum was more arcane, and perhaps rode on the Rose’s success. And now The Island of the Day Before comes with an actual publisher’s guarantee of intellectual labor. The author, the handout says, read hundreds of books of seventeenth-century history and poetry in order to write it, traveled to the tropics to check out what they looked like, visited marine museums, made diagrams of the ship he features in the book, and, since his hero crucially cannot swim from ship to tropic island, “spent a lot of time in the water figuring out how not to swim.” What author could do more? It adds that Eco possesses more than thirty thousand books, which caused some walls of his apartment to collapse.

The handout could also have guaranteed that there are all the fashionable storytelling devices in the book that any reader could ask for. Narratives are framed within narratives; letters, dreams, flashbacks are used to complicate the design. “Our tentative romance,” the author calls his story; and “what does it matter, finally, whether it is there or not,” of his tropic island. “If you would listen to stories—this is dogma among the more liberal—you must suspend disbelief.” God, after all, is only a clever storyteller,

who clearly knew how to handle different times and different stories, as a Narrator who writes several novels, all with the same characters, but making different things befall them from story to story…. A thought which, as we shall see, was to accompany Roberto for a long while, convincing him not only that the worlds can be infinite in space but also parallel in time.

Fiction, Eco’s hero Roberto muses …

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