Umberto Eco takes on the universe

November 05, 1995|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Island of the Day Before," by Umberto Eco. Translated by William Weaver. Harcourt, Brace. 515 pages. $25 Umberto Eco has once again transformed intellectual and religious history into a gripping concoction of mystery, political intrigue, and adventure with generous doses of romance and comic relief. "The Name of the Rose" delved deeply into the self-contained world of a medieval monastery, "The Island of the Day Before" takes on the universe.

By the mid-17th century, Europe had come to grips with the fact that the earth was not round but few, and least of all the Catholic Church, were prepared to accept Galileo's proof that the earth was not the center of the universe. At the time, even the finer points of Church doctrine were matters of life and death and a heliocentric planetary system undermined several of the Church's fundamental truths. Protestant forces were attacking the Church's political flank.

Amidst this astronomical, religious and political turmoil, explorers from the major European powers were appropriating any and all lands they could reach in the Americas and the South Pacific. Unfortunately, with no accurate means of calculating longitude, the explorers could rarely prove that they were the first to discover the lands they claimed and sometimes couldn't find them.

Thus the stakes are high in the summer of 1643, when the hapless Italian squire, Roberto della Griva, is sent by Richelieu's protg, the Cardinal Mazarin, to spy on an English scientist aboard the Amaryllis, a Dutch ship in search of the Punto Fijo, the fixed meridian that would enable the precise calculation of longitude. Just as he discovers the mysterious Dr. Byrd's gruesome secret, the Amaryllis is destroyed in a storm and Roberto is cast up, not on a deserted island, but on an apparently deserted ship. Lurking in the hold behind hundreds of clocks and a virtual rainforest of tropical birds and plants is the Jesuit priest, Father Caspar Wanderdrossel.

Father Caspar believes to have established the meridian. It lies precisely between the ship and a nearby island. Yet his boundless faith in the perfection of God's creation proves fatal. So Roberto remains stranded, separated from land by his inability to swim and the cosmic barrier of the international dateline.

Engrossing as it is, "The Island of the Day Before" is neither for the faint of heart nor the timid of mind. Detailed visions of Hell, a plague, Renaissance warfare, cannibalism, and brutal scientific experiments add spice to complex meditations on 17th century astronomy, theology, as well as lessons in the fine arts of dueling, survival in court and fiction.

Mr. Eco is a master storyteller, bringing to insistent life not only a multitude of characters, but an entire historical period in all its wisdom and folly.

This period is, mutatis mutandis, not so different from our own. The birth pangs of the Scientific Age, when technology first disproved the notion of man as the center of a universe designed by a benevolent clockmaker, have ended, but we are no less at sea than Eco's genial hero.

Tess Lewis writes articles for the Hudson Review, the Partisan Review, the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe, among others. She was Managing Editor of Persea Books in New York and is a Rhodes Scholar.

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