Wednesday, January 25, 2006

José Saramago's Unknown Island

Anyone who has opened a book by the Portuguese novelist José Saramago will have realised that he is not a writer who makes any concessions to the reader: he demands all that we have to give. For one, Saramago writes great chunks of prose that sometimes go on for pages without offering the reader the hospitality of a paragraph break. When he uses direct speech he does so without quotation marks or indentations. Thus when reading him we often find, to quote a phrase from an essay by Milan Kundera on Kafka, that "the eye finds no place to stop or rest".

Additionally, Saramago’s themes are often difficult, and his work is by turns fantastical, allegorical and even heretical. Blindness imagines a whole society afflicted by a loss of sight and the chaos that this brings in its wake. The Gospel according to Jesus Christ earned him the condemnation of the Catholic Church for its portrayal of Jesus not as the Son of God but of Joseph, and of God himself as a kind of power-hungry dictator. Something of this contrarian spirit, this determination to invert accepted ways of seeing things and indeed to be always at odds with power, can also be seen in the speeches and comments made by Saramago, an unreconstructed communist. In 2002 he courted controversy by likening the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to the Holocaust, and George Bush's re-election in 2004 prompted him to make several acidic observations on America's role in world politics.

Nevertheless, Saramago is too good a writer to ignore, for he is that rarest of rare things, a genuine stylist whose distinctive voice and way of looking at the world is stamped on every sentence he writes. It seems to me that if you were looking to approach Saramago for the first time, you should read his beguiling little fable The Tale of the Unknown Island. It is such a slim volume (one could have easily fit it into the recent Pocket Penguin series) that one might with justification call it a short story, except that it manages even at this length to convey a sense of amplitude – of a beginning, a middle, an end, and even the sense of a future – that is novelistic.

Saramago’s tale begins like a story from The Arabian Nights. We hear the voice of someone telling us the story more distinctly than we hear the characters themselves, and the narrative of a man approaching a king with a request is a convention perhaps as old as storytelling itself:
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 favours (favours 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 neighbourhood (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…. Then, the first secretary would call the second secretary, who would call the third secretary…
Many readers will no doubt find in this paragraph an accurate picture of the Indian bureaucracy, and if you substitute democratic politics for the rule of kings, it is possible to see also in this paragraph, especially in the wake of the recent cash-for-questions scandal, a picture of of Members of Parliament who spend their time sitting not at the door of petitions from those who have elected them but "at the door for favours".

Finally the king does appear, and is told by the man that he wants a boat to go "in search of the unknown island". The king is skeptical: no more unknown islands exist. The man is equally sure that he can discover one, and finally he is granted his boat. And as the man takes his leave to set off on his journey it turns out that the story has a hero and a heroine: the cleaning woman of the palace who, impressed by the man’s calm resolve, now decides 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. The man has no idea that, even though he has not yet started recruiting crew members, he is already being followed by the person who will be in charge of swabbing down the decks and of other such cleaning tasks, indeed, this is the way fate usually treats us, it’s there right behind us, it has already reached out a hand to touch us on the shoulder while we’re still muttering to ourselves, It’s all over, that’s it, who cares anyhow.
The man gets his boat, and the cleaning woman becomes the first member of the crew, but they have no luck in recruiting other sailors for his voyage, for they all insist that there are no more unknown islands.

Even at its simplest, Saramago's writing tilts at deeper meanings. The voyage in pursuit of unknown islands serves in his book as a metaphor for self-discovery. He plays on the well-known saying that no man (or every man, depending on whether the speaker wants to insist that man is inextricably connected to society, or there is always a core to him that is inaccessible to others) is an island when he has his protagonist insist 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." We might say that this is one of the things great narrative art does: to allow us, through an extended empathetic engagement in the lives of others, to become free of ourselves, to leave our own islands (as I suggest in this post and this one).

A great deal more happens that night: the man realises he is falling in love with the cleaning-woman, and later he sees a dream in which a lot of fantastical things happen. Saramago's finish is wholly in keeping with the playful, whimsical spirit of his story. The next morning…

…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 out to sea, in search of itself.
Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998. His wonderful Nobel lecture, "How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice", can be found here, and an autobiographical essay here. Since Saramago takes his politics so seriously, here is an extract from a speech made by him in 2002, "For Whom The Bell Tolls", and here is an essay called "Reinventing Democracy" written in 2004. Julian Evans provides an excellent survey of Saramago's life and work here, and Philip Hensher has a very fine piece on literary endings here.

1 comment:

bhuji said...

I came to your blog through Saramago, my love for the writer. I have been asking many around if they have read him and all I get is stares. Loved what you wrote and thanks for introducing me to many books.