The Tale of the Unknown Island by José Saramago: a thoughtful allegory on human existence and the significance of being a dreamer

José Saramago, The Tale of the Unknown Island. Illustrated by Peter Sis. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Published 1999 by Harcourt Brace & Company, 52p

Jose Saramago, via
Jose Saramago, via

In 1998 José Saramago was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature being considered a writer “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”. (The Nobel Foundation)

The Tale of the Unknown Island, written in a simple, clear language, is an example of Saramago’s original and inventive style. It begins like a fairy tale or like a story from The Arabian Nights only to soon prove that you were wrong expecting to read a children’s book and to emerge you in a mix of philosophy, psychology and romance.

An identified man (there are no named characters in the story) knocks one day at the king’s door and asks for a boat.

The king’s house had many other doors, but this was the door for petitions. Since the king spent all his time sitting at the door for favours (favours being offered to the king, you understand), whenever he heard someone knocking at the door for petitions, he would pretend not to hear, and only when the continuous pounding of the bronze doorknocker became not just deafening, but positively scandalous, disturbing the peace of the neighbourhood (people would start muttering, What kind of king is he if he won’t even answer the door), only then would he order his first secretary to go and find out what the supplicant wanted, since there seemed no way of silencing him. Then, the first secretary would call the second secretary, who would call the third secretary, who would give orders to the first assistant who would, in turn, give orders to the second assistant, and so on all the way down the line to the cleaning woman, who, having no one else to give orders to, would half-open the door and ask through the crack, What do you want. The supplicant would state his business, that is, he would ask what he had come to ask, then he would wait by the door for his request to trace the path back, person by person, to the king. The king, occupied as usual with the favours being offered him, would take a long time to reply, and it was no small measure of his concern for the happiness and well-being of his people that he would, finally, resolve to ask the first secretary for an authoritative opinion in writing, the first secretary, needless to say, would pass on the command to the second secretary, who would pass it to the third secretary, and so on down once again to the cleaning woman, who would give a yes or a no depending on what kind of mood she was in.

The fragment is an accurate definition of bureaucracy, isn’t it? It reminded me of Kafka and the political reality in Romania.

Anyway, afraid that the man’s pressing will lead to a revolt, the king eventually decides to give him a boat but not before asking for the reason he needs it. “To go in search of the unknown island”, replies the man. The king is not impressed at all and, skeptical, tells the man that there are no unknown islands left. The dialogue between the two reveals the confidence of a dreamer (the man) and the doubt and ambiguity of a ruler too preoccupied to collect his favours to leave time to expand his horizons.

Attracted by the man’s boldness and idealism the cleaning woman decides to follow him in this adventure of self-discovery:

The king’s philosopher, when he had nothing to do, would come and sit beside me and watch me darning the pages’ socks, and sometimes he would start philosophizing, he used to say that each man is an island, but since that had nothing to do with me, being a woman, I paid no attention to him, what do you think, That you have to leave the island to see the island, that we can’t see ourselves unless we become free of ourselves.

Although it might seem cryptic, the story is deep and beautiful. A man and a woman, two dreamers, two confident, brave human beings, fall in love and part of a strong, complete couple, they decide to discover their new selves and, fighting bureaucracy, to expand their life journey.


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