José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island, illustrated by the brilliant Peter Sis, is a fable of freedom, faith, and love.
A man knocks at the king’s door for petitions to demand a boat. The king, who spends all his time sitting at the door for favors, hears the knocking. Since the knocking continues and he is afraid that word will get out that he refuses to answer petitions, he tells his first secretary to ask what the supplicant wants. The first secretary tells the second secretary who tells the third secretary who tells the first assistant who tells the second assistant, until finally word is given to the cleaning woman. Since she has no one to order around, the cleaning woman opens the door and asks what the supplicant wants. (Along with Kafka, Saramago is the novelist of bureaucracy.)
Normally, the word of the supplicant’s petition is passed back up from the cleaning woman to the king, who decides whether or not he wishes to grant the petition, then returns his decision down the chain of command. But this man refuses to give the cleaning woman his petition, instead insisting that the king himself come to hear it. Undismayed by the cleaning woman’s insistence that the king is busy waiting for favors, he informs her that he is not leaving. Only one petition can be answered at a time, so the line outside the door grows. Vexed, the king breaks bureaucratic protocol.
When the king arrives, the man demands a boat. The king is so taken aback by his demand that he has to sit on the cleaning woman’s chair to recover.
And may one know what you want this boat for, was what the king did in fact ask when he had finally managed to install himself with a reasonable degree of comfort on the cleaning woman’s chair, To go in search of the unknown island, replied the man, What unknown island, asked the king, suppressing his laughter, as if he had before him one of those utter madmen obsessed with sea voyages, whom it would be as well not to cross, at least not straightaway, The unknown island, the man said again, Nonsense, there are no more unknown islands, Who told you, sir, that there are no more unknown islands, They’re all on the maps, Only the known islands are on the maps, And what is this unknown island you want to go in search of, If I could tell you, it wouldn’t be unknown (11-12)…
Only the known islands are on maps.
Pressured by the other petitioners, aware that other subjects are watching, and wishing to return to the door of favors, the king orders that the man be given a boat. Shortly after, something marvelous happens:
The man moved away from the door, a signal for the other supplicants finally to approach, there is little point in describing the ensuing confusion, with everyone trying to get to the door first, but alas, the door was once more closed. They banged the bronze doorknocker again to summon the cleaning woman, but the cleaning woman wasn’t there, she had turned and left, with her bucket and her broom, by another door, the door of decisions, which is rarely used, but when it is used, it decidedly is. Now one can understand the thoughtful look on the cleaning woman’s face, for it was at that precise moment that she had decided to go after the man as he set off to the port to take possession of the boat. She decided that she had had enough of a life spent cleaning and scrubbing palaces, that it was time to change jobs, that cleaning and scrubbing boats was her true vocation, at least she would never lack for water at sea (17-18).
She goes with the man and they jointly take possession of the vessel to search for the unknown island:
I want to find out who I am when I’m there on that island, Don’t you know, If you don’t step outside yourself, you’ll never discover who you are, The king’s philosopher, when he had nothing to do, would come and sit beside me and watch me darning the pages’ socks, and sometimes he would start philosophizing, he used to say that each man is an island, but since that had nothing to do with me, being a woman, I paid no attention to him, what do you think, That you have to leave the island in order to see the island, that we can’t see ourselves unless we become free of ourselves, Unless we escape from ourselves, you mean, No, that’s not the same thing (31-2).
The man cannot find a crew and, even if he did, they did not have enough rations to feed them. A sea voyage to find the unknown island would not be possible. But in Saramago’s fable, the unknown island is not a sea voyage. Indeed, it is nothing like what the man expected. How could it, being unknown?
The man and woman dine, then retreat below deck to sleep:
He woke up with his arms around the cleaning woman, and her arms about him, their bodies and their bunks fused into one, so that no one can tell any more if this is port or starboard. Then, as soon as the sun had risen, the man and the woman went to paint in white letters on both sides of the prow the name that the caravel still lacked. Around midday, with the tide, The Unknown Island finally set to sea, in search of itself (51).