For the past 10 years I have been trying to read Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before and, although it is not a particularly long book, reading it from cover to cover has been a bitter struggle.

First, some context: Eco is my favourite author, regardless of how pretentious that makes me sound. So far I have read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Baudolino, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Name of the Rose, Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition and The Limits of Interpretation, as well as countless academic articles.

The reading of each of these books has been deeply troubling and frustrating experience because, like many European writers concerned with the play of language and semiotic strategies, the voice Eco employs is manipulative and divisive. For instance, the first hundred pages of The Name of the Rose, one of the most unlikely books to become a box-office hit, were deliberately constructed to dissuade the reluctant reader from continuing further. Why would an author do this, you may ask? The answer lies in the idea of Model Readers and how texts attempt to construct them or, in this case, exclude those who don’t have the model characteristics.

But back to my story about reading The Island of the Day Before. It is with bitter irony that, having started and given up reading the book perhaps nine times during the past 10 years, I have finally entered the last 50 pages and I find myself with a shocking dilemma: I am not sure if I have read my version of The Island of the Day Before. To my philosophical and semiological horror, I discovered — while rummaging through my draws looking for something — another identical copy of the book. In a cold sweat, sitting with my back to the wall next to my bed, it all came flooding back.

When I bought the book, I persuaded my friend Jarred, who loved Foucault’s Pendulum, to get a copy too. He eventually gave up trying to read it, deciding it was a load of bollocks. It stayed, however, in his bookshelf and so, on one particular day, I asked to borrow it because mine had been packed away during one of my moves and stayed in the box marked “Books never to be attempted again”. And so this villainous double entered my home, invited as one does an evil spirit before the dementia of possession sets in.

I do not know if the book I have been reading all this time is mine or the copy. I can’t remember where I bought mine from, or where Jarred bought his. They look exactly the same.

Of course, if they are identical, then one can argue that it makes no difference which one I read. That is what I keep trying to tell myself but I have some reservations. Firstly, the books are not identical: one is mine and one is Jarred’s; I just can’t tell them apart. Secondly, how do I actually know that the text is identical without opening them up side-by-side and comparing each word? Of course I can trust the printing process, but having also read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, I don’t. And thirdly, even if the texts are identical, if I were to read the other copy now to catch up, it would be a different me being read by the text.

The risk that someone would swap the one I am reading for the one I am not is too great, and I must finish at all costs.

That is why I am sure Professor Eco will agree with my plan to solve this once and for all: I have decided to take my chances and finish the one I am reading. Tonight, in the dead of night, I will sneak out with the other copy and find a patch of open veld where I will tear it limb from limb and set fire to it until it can no longer be recognised. It is a mad gamble, I know, but I am prepared to live with the consequences of a mistake because I am desperate and not thinking with all my faculties.


Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and...

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