Room with a View|May 25, 2003 7:32 AM| by:

The Tale of the Unknown Island

Book: The Tale of the Unknown Island; Author: Jose Saramago

Now one can understand the thoughtful look on the cleaning woman’s face, for this was the precise moment when she had made the decision to go after the man as he set off to the port to take charge of the boat. She decided that she had had enough of a life spent cleaning and scrubbing palaces, that it was time to change jobs, that cleaning and scrubbing boats was her true vocation, at least she would never lack for water at sea. The man has no idea that, even though he has not yet started recruiting crew members, he is already being followed by the person who will be in charge of swabbing down the decks and of other such cleaning tasks, indeed, this is the way fate usually treats us, it’s there right behind us, it has already reached out a hand to touch us on the shoulder while we’re still muttering to ourselves, It’s all over, that’s it, who cares anyhow.

A most surprising book The Tale of the Unknown Island has turned out to be. I picked it up because I was in the mood to read something undemanding on time and effort. There was much choice but what made this wonderful book win hands down was its size – just over forty pages- and the delightful, dotted illustration on its cover, more of which were sprinkled through the story within. The “architecture” of this story telling technique is indeed unique and deceptive, for while it runs along as if spoken in one long breath, making the mind swallow it all like background music, on the other hand, it urges one to put in that little extra concentration to not get lost in the breathless dialogue. A warning for the uninitiated – Saramago doesn’t believe in the conventional style of full stops and inverted commas. One has to keep a close watch on the capital letters if one wants to know who the deliverer is.

Even though many children’s fables (which is what this book too would remind one instantly of) are nuggets of wisdom, yet, there is today, a tendency for either such tales being authored too pretentiously, as if conscious of their duty to produce those “nuggets” or else we ourselves are  fed up and look at such writing with suspicion and boredom. But Saramago is anything but trite in his narrative. He slips in the thoughtful look just when the reader least suspects it, only to find the mind galloping off to work out the hidden truth behind innocent words.

The harbour master said… I’m a sea captain myself and I certainly wouldn’t venture out to sea in just any old boat, Then give me one I could venture out in, no, not one like that give me a boat I can respect and that will respect me, That’s sailor’s talk, yet you’re not a sailor, If I talk like a sailor, then I must be one. The harbour master re-read the king’s visiting card, then asked, Can you tell me why you want the boat, To go in search of the unknown island, There are no unknown islands left, That’s just what the king said to me, He learned everything he knows about islands from me, It’s odd that you, a man of the sea, should say to me that there are no unknown islands left, I’m a man of the land and yet I know that even known islands remain unknown until we set foot on them, But if I understood you right, you’re going in search of one that no one has set foot on, Yes, I’ll know it when I get there, If you get there, Well, boats do get wrecked along the way, but if that should happen to me, you must write in the harbour records that I reached such and such point, You mean that you always reach somewhere, You wouldn’t be the man you are if you didn’t know that.

The story has just enough time to make one complete circle without too many twists and turns.  A man approaches a king for a boat. The author goes on to draw a satirical picture of the typical bureaucracy whose job it would seem is to not answer questions but to make the questioner regretful of having asked in the first place. However, our protagonist isn’t the kind to let go so fast and after three days of sleeping on the doorstep of the Palace, is granted a meeting with the king. They have a straightforward debate, with the king’s arguments based entirely on his lack of inner knowledge, pushed to the fore by his ‘high-horse’ demeanour. Finally the petitioner’s request is granted and armed with a boat, the help of a cleaning woman, and a dream, he is ready to sail on the mysterious expanse of the ocean to find an unknown island. If that is all there is to it or if it is an allegory for man’s search for himself, depends on how you want to read it.

Much though I am tempted to reproduce the entire short and sweet text before you, I will refrain and instead have you glimpse at just another passage.

And the sailors, she asked, No one came, as you can see, But did some at least say they would come, she asked, They said there are no more unknown islands and that, even if there were, they weren’t prepared to leave the comfort of their homes and the good life on board passenger ships just to get involved in some ocean-going adventure, looking for the impossible , as if we were still living in the days when the sea was dark, And what did you say to them, That the sea is always dark, And you didn’t tell them about the unknown island, How could I tell them about the unknown island, if I don’t even know where it is, But you’re sure it exists, As sure as I am that the sea is dark, Right now, seen from up here with the water the colour of jade and the sky ablaze, it doesn’t seem at all dark to me, That’s just an illusion, sometimes islands seem to float above the surface of water, but it’s not true, How do you think you’ll manage if you haven’t got a crew, I don’t know yet, We could live here and I could get work cleaning the boats that come into port, and you, And I, You must have some skill, a craft, a profession, as they call it nowadays, I have, did have, will have if necessary, but I want to find the unknown island, I want to find out who I am when I’m there on the that island, Don’t you know, If you don’t step outside yourself, you’ll never discover who you are, The king’s philosopher, when he had nothing to do, would come and sit beside me and would watch me darning the pages’ socks, and sometimes he would start philosophising, he would say that each man is an island , but since that has 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 in order to see the island, that we can’t see ourselves unless we become free ourselves, Unless we escape from ourselves, you mean, No, that’s not the same thing. The blaze in the sky was dying down, the waters grew suddenly purple, not even the cleaning woman could doubt that the sea really is dark, at least at certain times of the day.