The Tale of the Unknown Island

Tale of the Unknown IslandThis sweet little book by Jose Saramago with art of Peter Sís was a gift from my LibraryThing Secret Santa. It’s a sort of fairy tale for grown-ups (and perhaps some kids) that could by read in a single sitting.

The story begins with a man knocking on the king’s door—the one for petitions—and asking a king for a boat. He had to be persistent to get an answer:

Since the king spend all his time sitting at the door for favors (favors being granted 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 (people would start muttering, What kind of king is he if he won’t even answer the door), only then would he order the 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 man wants a boat so he can sail to an unknown island. This is, the king says, a preposterous request because all the islands are known and on the map. But the man persists and gets his boat. The next step, to find a crew and set sail, proves to require just as much persistence. But he does obtain one helper he didn’t even ask for, and that person has some different ideas.

The story blends humor and sweetness to look at how we seek our desires and our selves. How do we know what we want, and how do we know that we’ve found it? And what is the cost—to ourselves and others—of pursuing our dreams? At a mere 51 pages, the book doesn’t belabor any of these points or even answer all these questions directly. It just puts the ideas out there in a clever and enjoyable way.

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7 Responses to The Tale of the Unknown Island

  1. Sounds lie something I should read :)

  2. Alex says:

    The passage you quote sounds like just every government department I’ve ever had anything to do with – don’t do anything until it is more embarrassing to be seen doing nothing. I know I have some Saramago on my shelves because my godson gave me one of his novels some years ago. If he writes this well I must go and rescue it.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s not just government departments :)

      Saramago is an amazing writer. His voice is remarkably distinctive, and even when his books are dark, they’re often very funny.

  3. Eva says:

    Oh I enjoy fairy tales for adults! And I’ve been meaning to read Saramago for years. This sounds like a marvelous place to start. :)

    • Teresa says:

      i think you would enjoy this. It’s a sweet story, more so than the other Saramago books I’ve read, which can be rather grim and violent. (Blindess in particular was nearly too violent for me, although I ended up loving it.)

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