THE TALE OF THE UNKNOWN ISLAND by José Saramago

THE TALE OF THE UNKNOWN ISLAND

KIRKUS REVIEW

This richly enigmatic short story, published last year by Portugal’s reigning Nobel laureate (Blindness, 1998, etc.), is a mischievous and thoughtful satire on ruling elites and bold dreamers, cast in the form of revisionist fairy-tale. One day an unidentified man knocks at the door of a royal castle and demands that its king (of a likewise unspecified country) give him a boat: “To go in search of the unknown island.” The king at first protests that nothing unknown exists any longer (according to his royal geographers); but then, worn down by persistent petitioners—and in spite of himself piqued by the stranger’s boldness—relents. The cleaning woman, who has overheard all, joins forces with the man (though a crew cannot be assembled), and their hopes of sailing away to this imprecise Xanadu or Shangri-la are resolved only by the man’s complex concluding dream, in which this transparent parable of aspiration (“If you don’t step outside yourself, you’ll never discover who you are”) opens into a vision (of their ship as “a forest that sails and bobs upon the waves”) that assumes the dimensions of creation myth. This delightfully cryptic fiction incorporates vivid imagery, aphoristic concision, superbly wry dialogue, and subtly layered levels of meaning: it’s variously “about” complacent bureaucracies resistant to change, visionaries who are both courageous enough to reach beyond and unable to see the mud below for the stars above, and—just possibly—Christopher Columbus’s successful petition for the reluctant Spanish monarchy’s support of his great adventure (in this respect, it is perhaps most closely related to Saramago’s witty allegory The Stone Raft, 1995). The Swedes knew what they were doing when they honored Saramago. He may be the world’s greatest living novelist.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-15-100595-8
Page count: 64pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999




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