While checking some facts for my last blog about the writings of José Saramago, I came across one of his short parables which was new to me. It is entitled, “The Unknown Island.”
In a certain country the king is accustomed to receive petitions from his subjects who must come to an obscure door in the palace to deliver them. Mostly such requests are in fact received and answered by the cleaning lady. A man appears who demands to see the king himself, and when the king answers him in person, he demands a boat in which he can sail to an ”unknown island”. After it becomes clear that the man will not take no for an answer, the king makes arrangements for him to be given a boat, although he is warned that there are no unknown islands any more.
When the man receives his boat he is joined by the cleaning lady who wants to share his voyage, and while the man goes off to recruit a crew, she cleans the boat and repairs its sails. Sadly the man returns alone because no sailors want to sign up with such a madman, and are not interested in non-existent unknown islands. Puzzled as to their next step, the man and the cleaning lady decide to spend the night on the boat. During the night, the man dreams of the boat itself putting forth shoots and trees.
In the morning they declare their love for each other, paint a new name on the prow of the ship, hoist the sails and depart. The ship called THE UNKNOWN ISLAND goes off on its maiden voyage “to discover itself.”
The true adventure of humanity is to discover itself, and no human being should take no for a answer, or be prevented by ridicule from those who have lost the desire to explore. But for Saramago the adventurer is no solitary. It is only in partnership, here the partnership of man and woman, that the courage for the adventure can be maintained.
Something like this seems to be the author’s meaning. But lurking behind this humanistic parable is a more fugitive meaning which may be my own invention rather than Saramago’s:
There is a king who gives me a vessel in which to venture over the deep to an unknown island. In partnership with the lowliest ( and therefore wisest) servant of the king, I am encouraged to set off into mystery to find ourselves.