Walking backwards to Christmas Island

The Island of the Day Before

Pity poor Roberto. Arrested for a crime committed by his imaginary twin brother, he is employed by Cardinal Richelieu's successor as a spy on the sailing ship Amaryllis. Here he must discover the method employed by the Englishman Dr Byrd to determine longitude at sea, the great navigational problem of the age. With the discovery made Roberto is flung from the ship during a storm which wrecks it; after a week at sea he comes to rest against the bows of a second ship, moored within sight of the dateline, and the island beyond it. There, on that island, is the secret of longitude; more importantly the island is by its location yesterday itself, a yesterday that, if only Roberto could reach it, would permit him to make right the wrongs he has suffered.

But Roberto is not alone on the boat. Who dogs his footsteps? Who feeds the menagerie of birds, reminiscent of the specimens of natural history that Byrd collected on the Amaryllis as a cover story? Who winds up the collection of clocks, and why would this second ship---the Daphne---contain a room full of those mechanisms? Marooned, forgotten about, desolate... Roberto begins to write down his thoughts, a conflation of his own history and present with the Machiavellian adventures of brother Ferrante, leading inexorably to a present he wishes to deny in fiction if not in fact.

This swashbuckling epic, with battle scenes in Casale and mental and physical duelling in the salons of Paris, almost turns its own pages at a fair rate. Eco's encyclopaedic knowledge rarely interrupts the flow of a fascinating story, and often---like in Name of the Rose---seeks to compliment the events portrayed. His expertise in semiotics, moreover, leads to a subtle but effective mirroring of each textual item in every neighbour. His desire for Lilia, lonely---or comforted by Ferrante?---in Paris, is transfigured into the unattainable island, while the island and the boat are the images of fabled Ferrante and concrete Roberto. Or is Ferrante himself merely a symbol of Roberto's own downfall? And everywhere there are dissimilar twins: twin brothers, twin islands, twin boats, twin spies, twin methods of navigation. Which comes first, which means which?

Ultimately, however, the winding of the memoirs of Roberto around a literary caprice twists the story too crooked to be believable any longer, as a story. Eco is playing with, among other things, the notion of "who writes the writer?" skipping from the narrator, putative discoverer of Roberto's scribblings, to Roberto and thence to Ferrante and back. And by God he leaves you in no doubt that's what he wants to do. His fun-poking at the expense of critics and criticism takes the sting out of the tale, leaving it anticlimactic and as bifurcated as his larded symbolism. Clearly, although we will always need a star as bright as Eco to steer the modern novel by, one of him is more than sufficient.