Disorientation

Jonathan Coe

  • The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
    Secker, 513 pp, £16.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 436 20270 0

Umberto Eco began formulating his theories of the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ text in the late Fifties, and then more than twenty years later, with the publication of The Name of the Rose, he appeared to achieve the impossible, by proving that these two seemingly incompatible forms could in fact be reconciled. This was particularly good news for publishers, who suddenly found themselves dealing with a product which not only had solid highbrow credentials but was also able to shift units, as they say, in the international marketplace, and throughout the Eighties there was much talk of this fabulous hybrid called the ‘Euronovel’, of which the next memorable example was Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. The Last World, a short and cheerless fictionalisation of Ovid’s years in exile by the Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr, was a bestseller throughout most of Europe while doing poorly in this country, but any thoughts that this lucrative sub-genre might have played itself out have been dispelled recently by the extraordinary success of Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World, which with its dexterous combination of narrative interest and philosophical coating is the very model of a Euronovel.

Umberto Eco’s role in creating a market for these books cannot be overestimated: in fact, as you would expect from this compulsive self-analyst, he has already discussed it himself. His concept of the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ text, articulated most clearly in The Role of the Reader (1979), is really a way of re-stating, in slightly less contentious terms, the old distinction between high and low culture. An open text he compared to ‘a maze of many issues’ where ‘what matters is not the various issues in themselves but the maze-like structure of the text’. Such a text presupposes its own ideal reader, who is ‘strictly defined by the lexical and the syntactical organisation’: and so the ideal reader of Finnegans Wake, for example, cannot be ‘a Greek reader of the second century BC or an illiterate man of Aran’. The closed text, meanwhile, is produced by authors who have in mind ‘an average addressee referred to a given social context’, and these texts ‘obsessively aim at arousing a precise response on the part of more or less precise empirical readers’. As an example of this kind of text, he cited the James Bond novels.

Eco’s approach to Ian Fleming in this book was welcome for its critical gusto and its sense that he had really enjoyed the novels (by a sweet irony, Sean Connery would later take the lead in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film of The Name of the Rose). But he maintained, nonetheless, a high-minded refusal to make exaggerated claims for them, dismissing the Bond canon, finally, as ‘a museum of déjà vu, a recital of overcoded literary commonplaces’. And The Name of the Rose was informed by this same combination – a relish for the tropes of popular fiction, but tempered by a more deep-rooted conviction that they were somehow undermourishing.

If the project Eco set himself in writing that novel was not entirely new (what was Dickens trying to do in his last novels, after all, if not to combine seriousness of purpose with mystery story conventions?), he certainly approached it with a new self-consciousness – with an academic critic’s awareness of the potential inconsistencies and pitfalls. One of the things Eco must have realised is that the market for such a book didn’t at present exist, and would have to be created. He went on to say as much in his Reflections on ‘The Name of the Rose’:

It there is a difference, it lies between the text that seeks to produce a new reader and the text that tries to fulfil the wishes of the readers already to be found in the street. In the latter case we have the book written, constructed, according to an effective, mass-production formula ... But when a writer plans something new, and conceives a different kind of reader, he wants to be, not a market analyst, cataloguing expressed demands, but, rather, a philosopher, who senses the patterns of the Zeitgeist. He wants to reveal to his public what it should want, even if it does not know it. He wants to reveal the reader to himself.

Eco took his soundings of the Zeitgeist, then, and decided that he knew what we wanted: intense theological arguments and a crash-course in the European humanist tradition, but at the same time, a certain amount of what he self-deprecatingly referred to as ‘old-fashioned rubbish made up of the living dead, nightmare abbeys and black penitents’. Above all, he was convinced that he could envisage, and create, a model reader who was ‘an accomplice ... one who would play my game. I wanted to become completely medieval and live in the Middle Ages as if that were my own period.’ Pulling this trick off – turning us all into readers who suddenly wanted nothing more than to become ‘completely medieval’ – required a peculiar stroke of formal genius: not only did he recreate the intellectual and physical climate of the Middle Ages in extensive detail, but he grafted onto it all the pleasures of the modern whodunnit, with its irresistible blend of the cosy and the lethal. All at once, examples of centuries-old theological hair-splitting were transformed into matters of life and death, and the daily rituals of a 14th-century Italian monastery felt as familiar and comforting to us as afternoon tea in an Agatha Christie vicarage.

A crucial part of the strategy behind The Name of the Rose was the creation of a reader who would feel at home in the Middle Ages (the period in which Eco had always specialised, after all, and for which he presumably felt a certain proselytising zeal). In his new novel, The Island of the Day Before, he sets out to do something similar for another historical period, the early 17th century, and once again he writes with a palpable self-conscious understanding of the difficulties involved. The closing sentences of the book, in fact, appear to satirise the very assumptions which he expects his readers to bring to it. The narrator imagines himself – as in The Name of the Rose – receiving a lengthy manuscript from the hands of a collector, who warns him that ‘as for the content, from the little I have seen, they are mannered exercises. You know how they wrote in that century ... People with no soul.’ This is the idée reçue that the novel sets out to refute: the reader envisaged by Eco, perhaps, brings to the period a set of assumptions predicated on Eliot’s theory of the dissociation of sensibility, the tired old notion that ‘something happened’ to the European mind early in the 17th century, and that consequently in the poetry of someone like Donne, ‘there is a manifest fissure between thought and sensibility.’ Eco’s hero, an Italian nobleman called Roberto della Griva, is very taken with Donne’s poetry, having had stanzas from ‘A Valediction: forbidding Mourning’ quoted to him in Paris at an impressionable age. Later he will repeat these lines to himself (it’s the famous simile of the lovers compared to a pair of compasses) in a newly charged and feverish context, as a measure of the emotional distance he has travelled – with the reader, in theory, as his companion, for Eco’s aim is to guide us beyond the apparent archness and complexity of the period’s codes of expression, and into the heart of the 17th-century soul.

Roberto’s predicament in this novel is intriguing, as are the circumstances which have brought him there. He is, in his own words, ‘the only man in human memory to have been shipwrecked and cast up upon a deserted ship’. The ship in question is called the Daphne, and is anchored just off an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean – too far from the shore for Roberto, who cannot swim. Though deserted, the Daphne is prodigiously supplied with food and drink, so there seems no limit to the time he can expect to survive on it. Between the ship and the island, Roberto eventually learns, lies not only an expanse of water but also the international dateline, so it pleases him to reflect that whenever he looks in that direction he is literally (as well as littorally) looking backwards into yesterday. Something that pleases him less, as the novel unfolds, is the growing suspicion that he does not have the Daphne to himself, and that somewhere below deck, in one of its many secret chambers, there lurks an Intruder.

Unlike the Daphne, however, the novel itself is not condemned entirely to stasis, because Eco interweaves these scenes with the story of Roberto’s early life on the European mainland. For someone who has never quite seen the appeal of the seafaring genre, and whose eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of poop decks and forecastles (which perhaps doesn’t make me such a model reader after all), these European episodes are the finest and most absorbing in the book. Eco writes a long, gripping account of the siege of Casale, where Roberto receives his brutal initiation into the secrets of warfare, and establishes a nice atmosphere of intellectual ardour mixed with foppish romanticism when writing about the young noblemen dancing attendance round the courts of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Here, too, fans of The Name of the Rose will find the same mastery of historical detail, and the same enviable ability to give it narrative shape across a broad canvas: condemned to death for a crime he has never committed, Roberto is forced to accept employment as one of Mazarin’s spies, and thereby finds himself caught up in trade wars between the European powers. Specifically, he is hired to find out whether the British, or the Dutch, have overcome the great stumbling block which has so far defeated the French navigators and cartographers – the ability to calculate longitude.

There are further eggs to be thrown into this pudding. Roberto is also interested in a medical discovery known as the Powder of Sympathy, which can be used to treat wounds even at a great distance, when sprinkled on a sample of the injured man’s blood. Furthermore, he has a double – an evil brother called Ferrante – who stalks him across the globe, conspiring against his fate. As a learned friend of Roberto explains, the double is an essential component of romance literature, being, ‘A fine machination, whereby the reader identifies with the main character, sharing his fear of the Enemy Brother’. Ferrante’s own story becomes more important as the book progresses – it includes an extravagantly good passage in which he is rescued from prison by a grotesque army of beggar-cannibals – but it takes the form of a metafictional subplot: we are never quite sure whether he exists or not, since his adventures reach us in the form of ever more uncontrolled fantasies dreamed up by Roberto as he lives out the last days of his isolation.

It may be that the final disappointment of The Island of the Day Before lies in precisely this wilful blurring of fictional levels. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the reader’s dawning awareness that all the bizarre conspiracies encountered by the protagonists were, in fact, pure fantasy, acted as a heady metaphor for the vacuity, the disturbing lack of substance, behind our modern world of signs and ciphers. What made its conclusion so unexpected was the sense that Eco – Eco, of all people, probably Europe’s most culturally literate and up-to-date academic – might himself feel lost and bereft in this world, and nostalgic for a universe of values and certainties. Clearly he’s happy to have stepped back in time again (this shows in the writing, which has a new richness and sensuousness, especially in the passages where Roberto explores the coral reef). But while the case he makes out for the period’s authenticity of feeling is persuasive, it’s also oddly uninvolving: somewhere in the novel’s labyrinth of stories within stories, the reader gets lost. Disorientation is the theme of the book, of course, but I’m not convinced that the disorientation I felt was the same one Eco intended: this time, the knowledge that there will be no resolutions achieved, or destinations arrived at, is inscribed too emphatically and too early in the book, so that the reader succumbs, after a while, to a sort of inertia. The model reader is made to feel becalmed in this novel, whereas before in Eco’s work I’ve always found myself compelled by basic narrative curiosity. It’s curious to report such a sensation of lassitude, coming from a writer with whom I’ve previously felt such a strong temperamental – as well as anagrammatic – affinity.