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Every human is an unknown island

November 20, 2010 16 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.

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