Every human is an unknown island

November 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Tale of the Unknown Island by José Saramago. Read by Albert Millaire

The first time I heard of José Saramago is when he died. Then I read a review of Blindness and one of The Double. Neither of them convinced me Saramago would be an author I could like (or could be an author I would like?) So I did what I often do when I want to discover a new writer without investing too much time: I picked up a short story, and in this case, in an audio version – a way to spice my cooking time.

The Tale of the Unknown Island starts as many fairy tales: a man knocks at the king’s castle door to ask for an appointment with the monarch. He wants him to give him a boat, to find the unknown island. The king is puzzled and asserts all islands are known and drawn on official maps. The man insists and the king gives in: he can go to the harbour and get a royal boat for his quest. However, the king says he will not provide him with the crew, the man shall find himself the appropriate sailors. A servant, who overhears the discussion between the man and the king, decides to leave the castle and follow the man and be a crew member. The chief of the harbour gives him a caravel. The man says he does not know how to sail but he will learn with the boat, on the sea. The servant explains why she is there and becomes his partner in the adventure. We soon understand they shall probably never leave the pier.

The man says every human is an unknown island. He is looking for himself and is convinced he needs to leave physically to find his unknown island. At the end of their first day on the boat, after sharing their thoughts, their projects and their meal, the man and the servant go to bed separately . The man has a dream and she is not in the dream, which is painful.“Dreams are skilled magicians, they can change the consistency of things and people”. His dream makes him realise his unknown island is this woman, sleeping on the other side of the boat. The end of the tale echoes what Romain Gary wrote in Clair de Femme:  

J’avais patrie féminine et il ne pouvait plus y avoir de quête. Mon pays avait une voix que la vie semblait avoir créée pour son propre plaisir, car j’imagine que la vie aussi a besoin de gaieté, à l’en juger par les fleurs des champs, qui sourient tellement mieux que les autres. I had found my feminine country and no quest would ever be necessary again. My country had a voice that life seemed to have created for her own pleasure, because I imagine life also needs joy, if one thinks of wild flowers, whose smile is so much wider than the others’.”

This tale is more than just this story, of course. The man has no name, he could be anyone, you, me. His journey is his life, as we often feel, a small boat floating on a sea of events, learning how to sail, day by day. The man could not find any other sailor than this woman, the men said they did not want to risk their comfort to find the unknown island, such a risky project. Yes, abandoning your certitudes for the unknown requires courage. So does deciding to turn your back on other people’s expectations to be yourself.

I was enchanted by the tale, the style. It sounded simple, sometimes ironic, sometimes poetic. The flow of words was natural to hear. I couldn’t remember why I was so sceptical about my liking Saramago after reading the reviews I mentioned before. Then I looked at the excerpt printed on the back of the CD and everything became clear. The style, so fluid, so easy when read aloud seemed impossible for silent reading: no point, only commas, capital letters after commas, only one sentence and the excerpt ends with suspension points revealing that the sentence is not finished. Now I wonder if the entire tale is made of one gigantic sentence. And I recall why I doubted I could read Saramago; I’m not build to read books with such creative punctuation and syntax. I may miss a remarkable writer, but I’m not tempted to try one of his novels.

  1. November 20, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    That’s interesting because I’ve never been tempted by Saramago either.

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    • November 21, 2010 at 4:48 pm

      Why have you never been tempted by Saramago?
      At least, this shows audio books had an asset I hadn’t thought of. Maybe I should try his novels in audio books too.

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  2. November 22, 2010 at 5:36 am

    I’m not really sure. At some time in the past, I ‘looked’ at him and decided no, his books would not appeal. I can’t remember specifics, but it was likely style.

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  3. December 14, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Saramago has never tempted me either. He seems to sell a sort of accessible allegory. It’s doubtless hugely unfair but everything I’ve read of him seems to consist of rather obvious parallels, the island, blindness, which allow the reader to feel clever while seeing that which is hard to miss.

    All of which is probably utter prejudice. Still, he seems to writerly a writer to ever tempt me. That said, Bolano never tempts me either so what do I know?

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    • December 14, 2010 at 9:03 pm

      I don’t think I’ll try one of his novels.
      I have a Bolano at home but I haven’t read it yet.
      What does “writerly” means ? It’s not in my dictionaries. Does it mean “A writer who cares more about form than about substance” ?

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  4. December 14, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    I don’t think there is a fixed meaning.

    When I use it I mean a writer who is too conscious of themselves as a writer. One who employs style to show that they’re a writer, rather than to some other end.

    Ann Quin is very careful with her use of style and clearly very conscious of how she writes, but it’s all to an end. It’s not just showing off. Writerly to me suggests someone who’s writing the way writers are “supposed” to write, rather than in the manner best suited to what they’re trying to achieve with the book.

    Perhaps it’s just that the effort’s showing too much. I can see the machinery creaking. The heavy metaphors. It’s all clever, but a bit obvious.

    Hm, tricky unpacking these terms.

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    • December 14, 2010 at 9:25 pm

      Thanks for the explanation. It’s clear. That’s what I meant by form over substance. Also like literature under constraint.

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  5. leroyhunter
    December 15, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Another Saramago refusenik!

    Embarrassingly, a friend of mine bought me a hardback copy of Blindness a few years ago, which he loved but which I’ve never opened. I always feel guilty when I want to take it off the shelf to make room for something else, and end up leaving it there.

    Possibly unfairly I think of Saramago as an upmarket version of the dreadful Paulo Coelho.

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    • December 15, 2010 at 3:19 pm

      Yes, I’m afraid I am.

      I have the same problem with a John Irving book, except that I’ve moved it off the shelf. (Shame on me) That’s always surprising how some good friends aren’t good book-friends. For example, I really disliked The Red and the Black (especially the second part) and that’s one of my best friend’s favourite books. Talking about it at work, I discovered my favourite collegue has read it 6 or 7 times! Somehow it makes sense because what we like to read mirrors who we are and we usually don’t choose as friends or spouse people who are our clones but people who bring us something we don’t have.

      Saramago seems less naive than Paulo Coelho.

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  6. December 15, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    I must admit, the Saramago/Coelho comparison had been one I was making internally too. Like Leroy I’m probably being unfair, but it had occurred to me.

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  7. leroyhunter
    December 16, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    For me the comparison comes because they both seem to strive for a shallow kind of “pretend” profundity which they’re then at pains to display as a defining quality of their work.

    It’s that clunky, obvious quality Max described, albeit they use it to different ends: Coelho in pursuit of getting very very rich by peddling his cod-spirituality and “life lessons” in fiction; Saramago becoming very very famous and respected as a “serious writer” who says deep things about the human condition etc.

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    • December 16, 2010 at 3:07 pm

      I understand. The comparison is probably relevant for The Tale of the Unknwn Island but I’m not sure for other novels. Coelho is a Pangloss: everything will be fine, like in those manuals about personal developement. (Is that how it’s called in English too?)
      When I read reviews of Blindness and The Double, what displeased me was the literary pretense and also a feeling that these were gloomy books. And unnecessarily complicated books to show off as a highbrow writer. Not a Pangloss kind.
      I don’t need a book to be funny at any cost but I like short straightforward sentences with images that replace useless verbal logorrhoea. Not eveybody can be Proust. A gifted writer is someone who can use words in a way that nobody else did before and who can do it without the reader to realise the work he put in his work. It’s different and yet natural

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  8. December 16, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    What about Sebald? Definitely long, meandering sentences but I enjoy him anyway. Guess he is in another league than Saramago. And there is punctuation.
    I I like what Max says about writerly… I hate it when I have to feel like watching aspoilt child doing lame tricks I should applaud… I don’t want to see the camera filming when watching a movie, why would I want to have the feeling I watch someone make up a story and seehim write it.

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