The Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago

After reading the New York Times review of Cain, and a blogger review of Death Without Interruptions, by Jose Saramago I figured it was time I read some of his work.  Facing the reality of budget constraint, I headed to the library.  Being a fan of short and interesting fairy/folk tale type stories, I picked up The Tale of the Unknown Island while I was there.

Here is the publisher’s blurb:

A man went to knock at the king’s door and said to him, Give me 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 by the door for favors (favors being done to the king, you understand), whenever he heard someone knocking on the door for petitions, he would pretend not to hear . . .” Why the petitioner required a boat, where he was bound for, and who volunteered to crew for him the reader will discover as this short narrative unfolds. And at the end it will be clear that if we thought we were reading a children’s fable we were wrong-we have been reading a love story and a philosophical tale worthy of Voltaire or Swift.

It was an interesting and rather poignant story.  Not having read any Saramago before, I was not used to the style and structure of the writing: sort of stream of consciousness run on sentences.  It takes a while to get used to this; finding your rhythm and not being distracted by the unique style.

Once you get past that, however, there is an elegance to the simplicity of the story and the determination of the characters to go beyond the small world of their mundane existence; to seek uncharted waters and unknown islands despite everyone’s insistence that they do not exist.

Lacking the sophistication and erudition necessary, it seems I missed the “philosophical tale worthy of Voltaire or Swift.”  Of course, I am not exactly an expert on Voltaire or Swift either. There is clearly a sense in that searching for the unknown island is the search for love and companionship but also the sense that in order to find yourself you must get outside of yourself. There is a sense that the reward is in the journey and that the courage to face the unknown is important. But I didn’t pick up much more than that.

But it is a poignant love story nonetheless. The was Saramago describes the interaction of the maid and the man seeking the island is both romantic and humorous in the way love so often is. The two dreamers end up seeking the same thing – and find it in each other’s arms.

Anyone have a more detailed examination of what Saramago was getting at in this slim story?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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