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The Tale of the Unknown Island
by Jose Saramago

Published: 2000-10-05
Paperback : 51 pages
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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 ...
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Introduction

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 . . ." Why the petitioner required a boat, where he was bound for, and who volunteered to crew for him, the reader will discover in this delightful fable, a philosophic love story worthy of Swift or Voltaire.


"A man went to knock at the king's door and said, Give me a boat."

Even without the "Once upon a time," it's clear from the opening sentence of José Saramago's mischievous and wise The Tale of the Unknown Island that we have entered a somewhat fractured fairy tale. Of course, it could be argued that all of his works are, in some form or another, fairy tales, from the whimsical, revisionist History of the Siege of Lisbon to the darker dystopia of Blindness. Originally published as a short story in Portugal, Unknown Island contains all of the elements Saramago is famous for--dry wit, a seemingly simple plot that works on many levels, and an idiosyncratic use of punctuation, among other things. It begins as a satire concerned with the absurdity of bureaucracy as supplicants arrive at the king's door for petitions while the king himself waits by the door for favors:

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.
On this particular occasion, the man at the door asks for a boat so that he can search for an unknown island. When the king assures him that all the islands have already been discovered, he refuses to believe it, explaining that one must exist "simply because there can't possibly not be an unknown island." A palace cleaning woman overhears the conversation, and when the king finally grants his supplicant a boat, she leaves the royal residence via the door of decisions and follows the would-be explorer. Saramago then moves from satire to allegory as his two dreamers prepare for their voyage of discovery--and nearly miss the forest for the trees. The Tale of the Unknown Island packs more charm and meaning into 50 tiny pages than most novels accomplish at five times the length. Readers already familiar with the Nobel Prize-winning Saramago will find everything they love about his longer works economically sized; for those who have not yet experienced the pleasures of his remarkable imagination, Unknown Island provides a charming introduction. --Alix Wilber

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