Review: The Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago

I tracked down a copy of José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island after reading the opening lines:

A man went to knock at the king’s door and said, 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 at the door for favors (favors 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 neighborhood (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. (1-2)

The man wants a boat so he can seek out an unknown island, but he’s met with impatience because there are no unknown islands in a mapped world. Nevertheless, the king is obligated to supply a boat so he does. The man receives a note:

Give the bearer a boat, it doesn’t have to be a large boat, but it should be a safe, seaworthy boat, I don’t want to have him on my conscience if things should go wrong. (16-17)

My two favorite genres are adventure/exploration lit and fairy tales. Unknown Island quickly establishes itself as an excellent mash-up and follows through. At just 51 pages (small pages with periodic illustrations), this book can be read in ~25 minutes without breaking a sweat. The dialogue is tricky through. Saramago joins the ranks of the writers who eschew quotation marks—punctuation scraps specifically designed to clarify conversation—to make conversation more flowy/literary/whatever:

The harbormaster came, read the card, looked the man up and down, and asked the question the king had neglected to ask, Do you know how to sail, have you got a master’s ticket, to which the man replied, I’ll learn at sea. The harbormaster said, I wouldn’t recommend it, 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. (20-21)

This passage is clear enough, but only because the man and harbormaster have distinct voices. When the man talks to someone who shares his views, their voices blur into one. While this may make a statement about their characters, I feel like I can appreciate character development without this pesky lack of useful punctuation.

By the end, the meaning of the fable is clear without being preachy, but I confess to wanting an actual adventure. Saramago displays a flair for imaginative detail and description; I wanted to see his take on a sea voyage, possible monsters, and the thrill of discovery. The boat was procured so swiftly in the opening pages that I thought there would be time for some of the journey. That said, the story is so lovely that it feels shallow to have expected these things at all and they don’t belong in this story.

Strangely, the back cover of my edition includes this blurb from Washington Post Book World: “Laced with the sharp satire of Swift…a subtle sweet tale about love and the search for personal identity.” The second half of that sentence is accurate, but I didn’t catch the “sharp satire” business. On the whole, the tone is warm and dreamy; even the observations about human nature aren’t particularly pointed. I recently read Gulliver’s Travels and this book is the anti-Gulliver in its attitudes. The language is neat and clean, but sharp?

Overall: 4.8  It’s dreamy and moving in all the best ways. It’s hard to be tough on it since it requires such a short time investment.

Translation: Read it. It’s even available for free online. 🙂

7 thoughts on “Review: The Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago”

  1. I will definitely read it! I love tales with a seemingly surreal or “fairy-tale-ish” vibe (I know that is not a word, spent minutes trying to figure out the appropriate word, but to no avail… any suggestion for it?). Anyways, great review! Thanks for letting us know about this story 😀

    1. I hope you enjoy it!

      I like the term “fairy-tale-ish” if for no other reason than its clarity. 🙂 It’s a hard thing to describe, but my loose criteria is that a fairy tale should be a) short, b) operating on its own logic (possibly with quirky rules and consequences), and c) have that bed-time-y quality. If you get the version with illustrations, they add to the surreality too.

      1. Nice criteria! Yes, it is a somewhat vague category 😀

        Will keep a lookout for the illustrated version (depends on my savings since I want to read loooots of books) 🙂

        Good to know about this, thanks for your response!

          1. Ooohh! thank you soooo much for this! will definitely read it in the very near future! 😀

            I do believe that reading a physical copy is more comfortable, but this is great! I am fine with reading online as I browse stuff all the time, and the length of this story is appropriate too! Thanks again 😀

  2. Hello all
    I love this short story and have read it both
    in English and Portuguese, my mother tongue. Saramago is a really complex writer who uses irony and satire at a very high level. In spite of being a writer who speaks a universal language, I do feel it is easier for someone immersed in the Portuguese culture to understand the political convinctions portrayed in his writings as well as the irony beneath apparently simple facts or stories. Nothing is shallow when it comes to Saramago. With this pandemic going on, I’ve often thought of his Essay on Blindness as a sharp study of human behaviour under extreme or very harsh conditions
    Thank you for bringing this short story to the spotlight.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I’m going to read Death with Interruptions soon and look forward to it. I often think that all translations should have a note from the translator—maybe two notes: one before and one after the text—to try and put the book in context, and to explain some of the nuances that are so difficult to translate.

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