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, is like a cake his mother made with layers of egg and ham and pastry, and the universe is a pan in which different stories are cooking at the same time. This is Eco’s own method, confusing at times, of telling Roberto’s story. We meet him first, as in a kind of birth myth, floating on the sea, lashed, by hands unknown, to a plank. It is 1643. He is washed up aboard a ship which seems to be deserted. Flashback (this is a sample of Econian—Ecolian?—style) to the storm that wrecked him:
It is only later that he will assume, in dreams, that the plank, by some merciful decree of heaven or through the instinct of a natant object, joins in that gigue and, as it descended, naturally rises, calmed in a slow saraband—then in the choler of the elements the rules of every urbane order of dance are subverted—and with ever more elaborate periphrases it moves away from the heart of the joust, where a versipellous top spun in the hands of the sons of Aeolus, the hapless Amaryllis sinks, bowsprit aimed at the sky.
From here onward the narrative shuttles between Roberto’s early days on the Daphne (supposedly as related in a letter to his distant beloved, whom we only identify later) and flashbacks to his life up until the wreck. He has grown up, a solitary-child, on an estate in Italy; he was always fantasized a lost twin brother, Ferrante, who is darkly inimical to him. As a boy he is taken off to fight the Spaniards by his father, who dies while the two are with the defenders of the city of Casale. At this besieged city he meets the skeptic French philosopher Saint-Savin, who instructs him in atheism and represents, perhaps, the seventeenth century’s first signs of religious decay. “So you truly do not believe in God?”Roberto asks Saint-Savin; “I find no reason to,” Saint-Savin replies.
“You cannot believe what you are saying.”
“Well, no. Hardly ever. But the philosopher is like the poet. The latter composes ideal letters for an ideal nymph, only to plumb with his words the depths of passion. The philosopher tests the coldness of his gaze, to see how far he can undermine the fortress of bigotry.”
Saint-Savin dies with atheistic fortitude. Roberto finds himself eventually in Paris, mixes with femmes savantes with names like Arthénice and Carinthée, falls in seventeenth-century love with one (“The fire with which you burned me exhales such fine smoke that you cannot deny having been dazzled by it”), and ends up being engaged as a spy for the French by Cardinal Mazarin. His mission, a kind of industrial espionage, is to find out how far the English have got in finding the Punto Fijo, the fixed point from which longitude can be measured (and by the end of the book the reader may know more about the seventeenth century’s search for this calculation than he or she ever wanted to). The fixed point, of course, is a kind of metaphysical notion, for on one side of it time is a day earlier than on the other side and so runs backward.
On the Amaryllis Roberto sets sail for South America, discussing astronomy and philosophy all the way, passing islands populated by dusky sirens. He discovers that a nasty and ingenious piece of early vivisection is being carried out on the ship by the dastardly English: by sympathetic magic a dog being tortured on board will howl with pain at the moment a knife is plunged into the fire on the other side of the world, thus telling the time.* Interspersing the Amaryllis tale we have slices from Roberto’s first days on the deserted Daphne. The layers in the cosmic cake, we have already been told, cook at different speeds; so Roberto’s early life story has covered twenty-odd years, his Daphne experiences—tentatively exploring the ship, gazing at the unreachable island—a few days. He can find no one on board at first; but below deck he comes upon a kind of cathedral of growing plants, an aviary full of multicolored birds, a hall full of ticking clocks (reminiscent of Foucault’s Pendulum). Birds seem to have been fed, eggs to have been collected. Is there someone else on board?
Now the parallel shipboard stories converge, with the discovery in the recesses of the Daphne of Father Caspar Wanderdrossel, e Societate Iesu, olim in Herbipolitano Franconiae Gymnasio, postea in Collegio Romano Matheseos Professor. From him Roberto discovers why the ship is deserted: the crew had fled, because they believed Father Caspar to have the plague. They went ashore to the island, leaving him to die, and were eaten by cannibals. Father Caspar recovered, fortunately for the story, for as a man of piety he is a kind of opposite for the suave Saint-Savin. He is of course opposed to the heresies of Copernicus and Galileo, and rehearses the Argument of the Sun, the Argument of Hail, the Argument of White Clouds, and the Argument of Terrestrial Animals against the notion that the earth moves round the sun. He speaks in a fine Latin/German argot that gives full scope to Eco the jokey linguist and his brilliant translator (” ‘So, dumm bin ich nicht, not stupid! Vater Caspar has thought what no other human being before now had thought ever. In primis, he read well the Bible, which says, ja, that God opened all the cataracts of Heaven, but also had erupt all the Quellen, the Fontes Abyssy Magnae, all the fountains of the gross abyss. Genesis sieben elf.’ “).
Father Caspar goes to his death in a homemade diving bell in which he plans to walk across the sea bed to the island (one of many amazing contraptions that crop up in the book), and of his bones are coral made. Roberto is sorry to lose his companion, so starts up a whole new branch of the story in which he invents adventures for his lost twin brother, Ferrante, enabling all sorts of wickedness to be related, and darkening the atmosphere. Ferrante cheats, steals, ravishes the lady Lilia. Death creeps up: Lilia withers on a rock in an agony of thirst, Roberto tries to turn himself into a stone. Ferrante, mirroring Roberto’s plight (“Ferrante stands for your fears and your shame,” Saint-Savin has already said), is imprisoned on the island and unable to reach the ship. He meets more terrible beings on land than Gulliver did: dissected bodies that still walk, skeletons carrying spades to dig their own graves, bodies without heads, without penises, with guts dangling out. Horror-comic stuff. “Ill-come to the Land of the Dead,” says one,
…Here the air does not stir, the sea remains motionless, we feel neither heat nor cold, we know neither dawn nor sunset, and this earth, more dead than we, generates no animal life….This island is the one place in the Universe where pain is not allowed, where a listless hope cannot be distinguished from a bottomless boredom.
They are dead but unable to die; among them Ferrante (Roberto’s invention of him) is cruelly trapped. Then, in a fever dream. Father Caspar returns to Roberto to expound the full seventeenth-century horror of eternal punishment. In this dream-world Father Caspar metamorphoses into Judas, who for his sin of sins is chained forever to the spot, between the two time-worlds, where it is always the ninth hour in the year 33 AD. Judas’s is the worst punishment of all, for he is caught between two impossibilities. If he could cross the antipodal meridian, he could go back to Holy Thursday, the day before he betrayed Christ. But then, if Christ were not betrayed and crucified, the world could never have been redeemed. Judas has damnation on either side of him.
After this crowning conceit, there cannot really be an “end” to the story or stories of the Island of the Day Before. Anyway, perhaps it never happened, says Eco. Who knows?
And this is hardly a plot summary, because each digression on the way is a plot in itself. There are the machines, for instance: the ill-fated diving cage with its hooks and leather harness; the organ of Universal Harmony, surmounted by automata and fueled by sea water; Father Caspar’s technasma or Megahorologium, capable of revealing all the mysteries of the universe; the Aristotelian pre-computer that categorizes the qualities of everything that exists in a great wooden chest. And, of course, the machine (or God, or author) that contains all the narratives that can ever be.
We feel that Eco must have got enormous pleasure, at once schoolboyish and godlike, from dreaming up these contraptions. Then there are the exhaustive digressions into contemporary science; Eco has said that he loves the abandoned wrecks of false scientific theory, so we are able to learn from the book how the plague was thought to have been spread, what the unguentum armarium was, how vision is nothing but the encounter of the eye with the powder of matter. There are long philosophical digressions, luxuriations of antipodean flora and fauna, verbal explosions, unstoppable similes, metaphors that spread like fungus, and all the devices of rhetoric, for
the people of that period considered it indispensable to translate the whole world into a forest of Symbols, Hints, Equestrian Games, Masquerades, Paintings, Courtly Arms, Trophies, Blazons, Escutcheons, Ironic Figures, Sculpted Obverses of Coins, Fables, Allegories, Apologias, Epigrams, Riddles, Equivocations, Proverbs, Watchwords, Laconic Epistles, Epitaphs, Parerga, Lapidary Engravings, Shields, Glyphs, Clypei, and if I may, I will stop here—
Yes, yes, yes. Stop there.
Is this, then, the novel that has everything? As well as an extra-lavish allowance of words, it has Time, Space, Infinity, the Void, Heaven, Hell, and an unparalleled collection of ontological tricks. It attempts a complex picture of a world caught between religion and the birth of science—atoms preparing to split, the computer looming only centuries away. It takes on big symbols—the Ship, the Island—and it rehearses florid conjectures about the undiscovered Antipodes. The myth of the Double is not forgotten; the theory of parallel worlds comes in somewhere (I think), and chaos theory is implicated in the scratching of a flea’s leg.
Eppure non si muove. In spite of William Weaver’s astounding translating skills, there remains something lifeless about the book, buried as it is under a mass of verbiage. Decoding it, even, is a lot more fun than reading it. It is like one of the creaking, non-functional machines that stud its pages; it might be better issued in the form of a superior computer game for literary theorists and members of Mensa. What actually made The Name of the Rose work was not the vast learning embedded in it (which Eco wrote a book afterward to explicate), but the small literary spark at the center that was Eco’s imagining himself into a young boy’s mind. This came from his memory rather than his learning. It is hard to find such human illumination in The Island of the Day Before.
Gabriel García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons is the opposite of Eco’s novel: small and spare (some 50,000 words), but glowing with Hispano-American magic that comes partly just from the setting that Márquez made his own in Love in the Time of Cholera: the old town of Cartagena de Indias on the torpid Caribbean coast of Colombia. The time is uncertain—a century later than Eco’s tale?—slaves and superstitions, at any rate, are still plentiful, sicknesses are treated with herbs, spells, and invocations. In the harbor float bloated bodies; on a mud beach, children throw stones at a pelican.
In his preface Márquez says that the story sprang from an incident in 1949, when he was a young newspaper reporter. The old convent of Clarissan nuns in Cartagena was being demolished so that a five-star tourist hotel could be built on the site, and the burial crypts were being emptied. (Is it true? In spring of this year, the hotel was still on the drawing board.) The editor sent him over to concoct a news story. What he saw when he entered the crypts were dusty bones sorted into piles—here the bishop Don Toribio de Cáceres y Virtudes, there the abbess Mother Josefa Miranda—with broken coffins, shreds of clothing, rot and dust. This sets the atmosphere, feculent and pitiless, of the whole tale. By the altar, where a niche had been broken, the workmen had released a stream of copper-colored hair from a coffin; it tumbled out, still attached to the scalp of a young girl, till it measured twenty-two meters spread out on the floor. (Is this true? Can dead hair grow?) Márquez links this memory to a story he heard as a boy, of a twelve-year-old marquise, with hair like a bridal train, who died of rabies and was venerated for miracles all along the coast.
He makes Sierva María de Todos los Angeles the child of the second Marquis de Casalduero and a drug-crazed mestiza mother. Neither parent has any interest in the child, and she lives in the slaves’ quarters of their decaying mansion.
Sierva María learned to dance before she could speak, learned three African languages at the same time, learned to drink rooster’s blood before breakfast and to glide past Christians unseen and unheard, like an incorporeal being. Dominga de Adviento surrounded her with a jubilant court of black slave women, mestiza maids, and Indian errand girls, who bathed her in propitiatory waters, purified her with the verbena of Yemayá, and tended the torrent of hair, which fell to her waist by the time she was five, as if it were a rosebush. Over time the slave women hung the beads of various gods around her neck, until she was wearing sixteen necklaces.
In the market one day Sierva María is bitten by a dog. The wound seems to heal, but the news gets about that others bitten by the dog have died. Rabies is a great horror: a pack of howling infected monkeys once broke into the cathedral; rabid humans are tied to the wall or, more mercifully, poisoned. For the first time the Marquis’s heart is touched for his daughter: he brings her out of the slave quarters and installs her in her grandmother’s bedroom, on a copper bedstead draped with tulle and passementerie. Lessons are arranged for her, the Marquis takes her to fairgrounds and plays music for her on the Italian theorbo; but one day the first symptoms of the disease appear. The girl is given over to the doctors of Cartagena, with their enemas, leeches, antimonies, and urine baths. Covered in blisters and bruises, she howls with pain and fury.
A summons comes to the Marquis from the episcopal palace, and on a terrace looking over the town’s tiled roofs, the Bishop demands that Sierva María, so obviously now possessed by demons, be put in the care of the Santa Clara nuns. Once she is in the convent, the frightened child’s clothes are taken away and she is strapped down in a cell used by the Inquisition. A pale young cleric from Spain, Delaura, is appointed to be her exorcist. After talking to her, he argues that she is not possessed. But when bees swarm, a hen flies out to sea, and a goat gives birth to triplets, it is clear within the convent that Sierva María has a devil.
One day when Delaura comes to the convent he finds her, dressed in her grandmother’s silks and with jewels in her long, long hair, having her portrait painted. He is possessed, fatally. “It is the demon, Father,” he tells the Bishop. “The most terrible one of all.” The demon of love.
He is banished to work in a leper hospital, escapes to make Sierva María fall in love with him by reading poetry, like Paolo to Francesca, but is driven out of the convent by a coven of nuns: “Vade retro, Satana!” Slowly, the deserted girl is driven to her death by exorcism after exorcism, the copper hair cut off with shears, arms pinned into a straitjacket. “The immense bellowing of maddened cattle could be heard, the earth trembled, and it was no longer possible to think that Sierva María was not at the mercy of all the demons of hell.”
Delaura had had a dream about her, the night before he met her: she sat at a window eating grapes and looking over the snow-covered landscape of his Spanish home, in Salamanca where it once snowed for three days and covered the lambs. Each grape she ate grew back again, because he knew that when the bunch was finished she would die. As she lost her will to fight the exorcist, Sierva María
dreamed again of the window looking out on a snow-covered field from which Cayetano Delaura was absent and to which he would never return. In her lap she held a cluster of golden grapes that grew back as soon as she ate them. But this time she pulled them off not one by one but two by two, hardly breathing in her longing to strip the cluster of its last grape. The warder who came in to prepare her for the sixth session of exorcism found her dead of love in her bed, her eyes radiant and her skin like that of a newborn baby. Strands of hair gushed like bubbles as they grew back on her shaved head.
And so it ends, this powerful and savage tale. It is an ambitious book, different from and darker than anything Márquez has written before, ferocious as a fairy tale. Part of its force comes from the juxtaposition of the baroque trappings of exiled Spain and the different exoticism of African slavery—opulence and finery set against sickness and sorcery. The dignities of distant Spain struggle for survival in its colonial outpost, and the innocent wild girl is crushed between two barbarities, pagan and Catholic. There are no rules, really, for magical writing. Some people, as here, find the key and open the door.
January 11, 1996
For those interested in the staggering importance of the “longitude problem” for past centuries, Dava Sobel’s Longitude (Walker and Co., 1995) packs a long story into a small space. Three centuries before Christ, Ptolemy (who believed that anyone living south of the equator would melt) set the problem afoot, but it took a further millennium before the lives of uncounted sailors ceased to be lost each year through faulty navigation. Meanwhile, Galileo, Newton, Philip III of Spain, Louis XIV, and Charles II all agonized over the problem, and “discovering the longitude” meant—as “going to the moon” once did—achieving the impossible. It even seems that Eco’s bizarre concept of calculating time by vivisecting a dog at sea is taken from a seventeenth-century proposal. In the end, a country clockmaker named John Harrison invented the timekeeper that could give the correct time at sea—though he did not win the reward set by the Longitude Act until forty years later. ↩