Book review: The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco

I just finished The Island of the Day Before, by Umberto Eco. The original is in Italian, I have the English translation. It seems like a good novel to review here, as it has a smell of physics and mathematics, philosophy and history about it. The subject is set in the 17th century and has to do with a sort of castaway.

I hate book reviews that give away too much of the plot of a book.  When I pick up a book, to decide whether I will invest the time and money to read it, I sample a little from its pages. Generally I wish to know as little as possible before beginning.  I think that this is the environment that the author intended to address. A few days ago I read Mark Helprin’s recent book, Freddy and Fredericka, and felt that I would have enjoyed it a bit more if I had failed to read the book jacket. I suppose I should review that book as well, but I’ve enjoyed other Helprin novels so much more that I think I will instead backtrack through one or another of the others. With that said, let me include a page from The Island of the Day Before, a page having to do with the conflict between science and ignorance, and reminding me of the recent disappearance of bees:

Father Caspar tried to explain that during the great pestilence that struck Milan and Northern Italy a dozen years before, he had been sent, and with some of his brothers, to lend a hand in the lazarettoes, and to study the phenomenon closely. And therefore he knew a great deal about that contagious lues. There are diseases that affect only individuals and in different places and times, like the Sudor Anglicus, others peculiar to a sole region, like the Dysenteria Melitensis or the Elephantiasis Aegyptia, and still others that, like the plague, strike over a long period all the inhabitants of many regions. Now, the plague is announced by sun spots, eclipses, comets, the appearance of subterranean animals emerging from their lairs, plants that wither because of mephitis: and none of these signs had appeared on board or on land, or in the sky or on the sea.

Secondly, the plague is certainly produced by fetid air that rises from swamps, from the decomposition of many cadavers during war, also by invasions of locusts that drown in swarms in the sea and are then washed up on shore. Contagion is caused, in fact, by those exhalations, which enter the mouth and lungs, and through the vena cava reach the heart. But in the course of navigation, apart from the stink of the food and the water, which in any case causes scurvy and not plague, the sailors had suffered no malefic exhalations, indeed they had breathed pure air and the most healthful winds.

The captain argued that traces of such exhalations stick to clothing and to many other objects, and perhaps on board there was something that retained the contagion at length and then transmitted it. And he remembered the story of the books.

Father Caspar had brought with him some good books on navigation, such as l’Arte de navegar of Medina, the Typhis Batavus of Snellius, and the De rebus oceanicis et orbe novo decades tres of Peter Martyr, and one day he told the captain he had acquired them for a trifle, and in Milan: after the plague, on the walls along the canals, the entire library of a gentleman prematurely deceased had been put out for sale. And this was the Jesuit’s little private collection, which he carried with him even at sea.

For the captain it was obvious that the books, having belonged to a plague victim, were agents of infection. The plague is transmitted, as everyone knows, through venenific unguents, and he had read of people who died by wetting a finger with saliva as they leafed through works whose pages had in fact been smeared with poison.

Father Caspar employed all his powers of persuasion: no, in Milan he had studied the blood of the diseased with a very new invention, a technasma that was called an occhialino or microscope, and in that blood he had seen some vermiculi floating, and they are precisely the elements of that contagium animatum and are generated by vis naturalis from all rot and then are transmitted, propagatores exigui, through the sudoriferous pores of the mouth, or sometimes even the ear. But this pullulation is a living thing, and needs blood for nourishment, it cannot survive twelve or more years amid the dead fibers of paper.

The captain would not listen to reason, and the small but lovely library of Father Caspar had finally been carried off on the tide. But that was not all: though Father Caspar was quick to say that the plague could be transmitted by dogs and flies but, to his knowledge, surely not by rats, the entire crew nevertheless fell to hunting rats, shooting in every direction, risking breaches in the hold. And finally, as Father Caspar’s fever continued the next day, and his bubo showed no sign of going away, the captain came to a decision: they would all go to the Island, and there wait until the priest either died or was healed, and the ship would be purified of every malignant flux and influx.

This gives you an excellent idea of how this book is written, and to me this is as important as, or more than, the plot, or what the book has to say about the human condition, or science, or whatever.

Beyond this, I am unwilling to go. I should mention some things that came to mind while reading this. As the above quote shows, it will help to have a very complete English dictionary at hand. Also, an English/Latin, English/French, English/Italian and English/German dictionaries would be handy. Ah heck, it would be nice to keep an internet connect handy.

A theme of the book is the Languedoc heresy, but it is done in a way that one would miss if one were not already aware of that sort of thing. This seems to be a common theme among books I’ve read since the beginning of the year. Most recently there was the horrible novel, The Last Templar, before that the fascinating speculative history Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith by Hancock and Bauval, and besides those two, the freemasons have repeatedly showed up in my recent reading of the history of the Mexican, French, and American revolutions. In addition, late last year the best selling novel The Da Vinci Code plowed the same waters. But other than Talisman, the book I would suggest to complement The Island of the Day Before would be the physics text Concepts of force by Max Jammer, as this explains well the power of sympathy as understood at the time in which this book is set.


Filed under book review, heresy, physics

5 responses to “Book review: The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco

  1. Kea

    Heh, that sounds great! I enjoy historically accurate seafaring stories. Conrad, of course, is one of my favourites. Not sure when I’ll read the Eco, though.

  2. jeff

    Hi, thanks for your interesting review of Eco’s book. You got me curious enough to buy it. Ciao

  3. All of Eco’s books are worth reading. I am not sure whether the translation does justice to his wonderful prose, though. He uses a very wide vocabulary, as you noted above, but he also uses particular constructs in his sentences, and he is a master of the use of the language in general. However, I tend to believe he worked tightly to his translators, so in some way you’re still safe… By the way, you know “The name of the rose”, don’t you ? That is a must-read.


  4. Kea

    Oh, I read that one many years ago, Tommaso. Yes, he is a great writer, even in translation.

  5. Sounds excellent and vaguely reminds me of _The Physician_ by Noah Gordan. I, like Kea, have a special place in my heart for Conrad. The sea has always drawn me. Perhaps my Charleston early childhood…

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