Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Searching for the Unknown

A friend of mine is a great fan of the fiction of Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died in 2010 after winning the Nobel Prize. So I was happy to find a story of his in book form, The Tale of the Unknown Island, in a used bookstore. It was published in 1997.

This brief (42 page) fable apparently captures much of what Saramago was about: allegorical explorations of the unknown, with some satire of bureaucracy, in long sentences made up of clauses strung together with commas and comprising vast paragraphs.  This style is fairly easy to get used to, and the short tale is a delight to read.

The author has the tendency to sum up his big ideas in concise form. In this case, we read that, if you don't step outside yourself, you will never find out who you are. The whimsical yet profound tale concerns a nameless man who requests a boat from a king so he can travel to an unknown island.  Since he has no knowledge of the sea or of where this island might be, his request is seen as absurd.

But off he goes with the cleaning lady in a quest for the meaning of life, which has something to do with love.  I will say no more so that readers can enjoy this tale for themselves and perhaps search out his novels.

I checked out Saramago on the internet just for fun, even though I was taught that knowledge of an author's life should not affect one's interpretation of his or her work.  What I learned about his life was not especially helpful in approaching this piece of fiction, in contrast to the way that Hemingway's life, which I have been re-exploring, is immediately relevant to understanding his work. Saramago, like Shakespeare, does not require the reader to be familiar with his biography. This is liberating: the work of art can stand on its own, open to many interpretations, uncolored by factual specifics.

I am glad at last to have met the fantasy world of Jose Saramago.

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