The Tale of the Unknown Island Short Summary

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Kirkus in 2010 called this story ‘a mischievous and thoughtful satire on ruling elites and bold dreamers, cast in the form of revisionist fairy-tale. ’ This review could easily be applied to another story of Saramago’s, ‘Centaur’, and beautifully sums up the style of the author. ‘The Tale of the Unknown Island’ by the Nobel Prize winning Portuguese author José Saramago was first published in the original Portuguese in 1997 and later in English in 1999.

Set in an unidentified land in an unspecified time, the story tells of a man petitioning the king for a boat to find the unknown island. Even when the king tries to persuade the man that all islands are known, the man persists in his belief and is granted the boat he is after. The king’s cleaning lady follows the man in his attempt to find the unknown island and the two of them continue to the boat. Once on the boat the man tries to find a crew to help them on their voyage but is met only by the same doubtfulness of unknown islands as the king by sailors and harbour masters alike.

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That night however, the man dreams about the crew of the boat abandoning the man to a known island and the boat undergoing a burst of creation in the form of trees and plant life as the man searches for the cleaning lady. The story concludes with the man waking up and embracing the cleaning lady until the morning when they name the boat ‘The Unknown Island’ and sail off together. Throughout the story Saramago continuously looks to challenge the consensus of others through the optimism and belief of the main character the ‘man’ and magically intertwines these themes with a fairy tale of love and the search for self-knowing. The optimism of the protagonist of the story and his challenge to the bureaucracy can be seen from line one as he says ‘give me a boat’. The persistence of the man is highlighted throughout his request for a boat and Saramago uses this opportunity to make a swipe at the bureaucracy of governments and kings. Saramago being a victim of censorship from the Portuguese government and akin to challenges to the established order takes time in his stories to voice his opinions regarding them. He does this in ‘The Tale of the Unknown Island’ with the description of the system of doors and petitions.

When the king realises the man’s petition may cause a revolt on line 6 ‘people would start to grumble’ and that the man wouldn’t cave in on line 7 ‘refused to be silenced’, he started in motion the bureaucratic system Saramago was satirising. Throughout the second paragraph there are commands passed from first secretaries to second secretaries and adjutants and finally to the cleaning lady. The man persists despite all the needless messages being passed from person to person and is shown to want to be different and attempt to change the established order of things.

He is told on line 21 that ‘the king can’t come’ to hear his petition but he is adamant on line 22 and 23 that he ‘shall not go away until he (the king) comes in person to find out what it is I want’ speaking with ‘finality’. The satire of the system continues onto page two as Saramago describes ‘the correct bureaucratic channels’ being ‘three days later’ on line one as the king comes to meet the man still worrying that the people ‘would go off at once and say God knows what’ on line seven showing a fear of loss of power.

On line thirteen it says that ‘the only person who was not unduly surprised (by the king’s arrival) was the man who had come to ask for a boat’ this shows again the unwavering belief the man has in his cause and despite the king telling the man that on line twenty-nine ‘there are no longer any unknown islands the man replies on page three line one ‘it is impossible that an unknown island should not exist’. These examples show both the author’s and the protagonist’s challenge to the order of things and the complete belief the character has.

The best example of this is on line eight when the king says that he ‘shall not give you the boat’ the man replies ‘with calm assurance’ ‘you will’.If the conflict between the man and the order encompasses the first half of the story, then the second half tells of love and the relationship between the man and the cleaning lady. It begins on page three line thirty-one ‘she had just then decided to follow the man’ it shows that the belief of the man and his success in claiming the boat from the king had stirred the woman into following him.

The story builds on their relationship on page six line ten as the woman starts to think of the man in a very homely way having cleaned the boat while the man was gone looking for a crew she worries about the provisions on board the boat as the man ‘will turn up saying he’s hungry, which is what all men say the minute they get home’ appropriately describing the boat as their home. The problem with the love developing in the story is the man’s inability to see that all he needs he has in front of him.

We can see a metaphor for this on page four line three ‘this is indeed how destiny tends to behave. It is right behind us, it has already stretched out its hand to touch us on the shoulder’. Only on page seven we can start to see a direct shift in what the man wants and is aspiring to get when on line thirty he says ‘she’s beautiful, she is truly beautiful’ she being the woman as if just realising this for the first time, when previously on line fourteen he says ‘she’s beautiful’ but here he refers to the boat.

On page eight the two talk more of their togetherness but neither is committed to showing their feelings due to their confusion of what one another wants on line fifteen ‘No need to say what the man was thinking, She’s beautiful, but what she was thinking does need to be said, You can tell he only has eyes for the unknown island’. During the dream sequence on page nine the man searches for the cleaning lady whilst on the voyage but even when he knows she is not on board on line twelve ‘his eyes are searching for her’.

Their love and fulfillment is not realised until page ten and the end of the story on line seventeen when after the dream ‘he woke up clinging onto the cleaning-woman, and she onto him, their bodies as one’ not knowing who came to who. The building of the relationship shows us that at the end the man having found love rather than an unknown island is content and underwent a voyage of self-discovery.

All through the story, Saramago’s style runs deep in his use of metaphor to convey deeper meaning in his work to his use of punctuation. The metaphor for those who are trying to stop dreams the pessimists of the story trying to make the man doubt his belief in the unknown island. These are presented in the form of the king, the harbour master on page four, and the sailors on page six line eighteen ‘there were no more unknown islands’. Another example is the man and his optimism which is a metaphor to continue to believe.

He shows that in spite of obstacles to remain determined and provides a positive mood for the story. The unknown island itself is a metaphor for wanting to find something in life. The unknown island can be different for everyone and in this case it turns out to be love. Saramago uses a writing style that gives the appearance of a spoken conversation through only full stops and commas and no speech marks to separate the text making the text even more enjoyable.

On page seven line eight for example, ‘How did you learn these things? Just like that. Just like what? Like you,…’. The use of these tools gives the story greater meaning and makes it more positive in its reading.In summary, Saramago has written a wonderful fairy tale of self-belief, optimism, and love. Through his character of the man and his belief in the unknown island, he has created a story for all to read and share.

He says on page six line twenty-eight ‘if you do not get out of yourself, you will never find out who you are’ and this is the message that the author wants to send out to the reader and does so with great effect. The bureaucracy of the king’s castle is a political message by Saramago but his message of self-belief is the more important one. Even at the end of the story as the man and the cleaning lady sail off together it is unknown whether they find a real unknown island, but this is not important to the reader at this point as the message has been delivered that if you follow your dream then your dream will follow.

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