Tale of the unknown isla.., p.1
Tale of the Unknown Island, page 1
A man went to knock at the king's door and said to him, 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 by the door for favors (favors being done to the king, you understand), whenever he heard someone knocking on the door for petitions, he would pretend not to hear . . ." Why the petitioner required a boat, where he was bound for, and who volunteered to crew for him the reader will discover as this short narrative unfolds. And at the end it will be clear that if we thought we were reading a children's fable we were wrong-we have been reading a love story and a philosophical tale worthy of Voltaire or Swift.
THE TALE OF THE UNKNOWN ISLAND
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 favors (favors 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 neighborhood (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, since there seemed no way of silencing him. Then, the first secretary would call the second secretary, who would call the third secretary, who would give orders to the first assistant who would, in turn, give orders to the second assistant, and so on all the way down the line to the cleaning woman, who, having no one else to give orders to, would half-open the door and ask through the crack, What do you want. The supplicant would state his business, that is, he would ask what he had come to ask, then he would wait by the door for his request to trace the path back, person by person, to the king. The king, occupied as usual with the favors being offered him, would take a long time to reply, and it was no small measure of his concern for the happiness and well-being of his people that he would, finally, resolve to ask the first secretary for an authorita tive opinion in writing, the first secretary, needless to say, would pass on the command to the second secretary, who would pass it to the third secretary, and so on down once again to the cleaning woman, who would give a yes or a no depending on what kind of mood she was in.
However, in the case of the man who wanted a boat, this is not quite what happened. When the cleaning woman asked him through the crack in the door, What do you want, the man, unlike all the others, did not ask for a title, a medal, or simply money, he said, I want to talk to the king, You know perfectly well that the king can't come, he's busy at the door for favors, replied the woman, Well, go and tell him that I'm not leaving here until he comes, in person, to find out what I want, said the man, and he lay down across the threshold, covering himself with a blanket against the cold. Anyone wanting to go in or out would have to step over him first. Now this posed an enormous problem, because one must bear in mind that, according to the protocol governing the different doors, only one supplicant could be dealt with at a time, which meant that, as long as there was someone waiting there for a response, no one else could approach and make known their needs or ambitions. At first glance, it would seem that the person to gam most from this article in the regulations was the king, given that the fewer people bothering him with their various tales of woe, the longer he could spend, undisturbed, receiving, relishing and piling up favors. A second glance, however, would reveal that the king was very much the loser, because when people realized the unconscionable amount of time it took to get a reply, the ensuing public protests would seriously increase social unrest, and that, in turn, would have an immediate and negative effect on the flow
of favors being offered to the king. In this particular case, as a result of weighing up the pros and cons, after three days, the king went, in person, to the door for favors to find out what he wanted, this troublemaker who had refused to allow his request to go through the proper bureaucratic channels. Open the door, said the king to the cleaning woman, and she said, Wide open, or just a little bit. The king hesitated for a moment, the fact was that he did not much care to expose himself to the air of the streets, but then, he reflected, it would look bad, unworthy of his majestic self, to speak to one of his subjects through a crack in the door, as if he were afraid of him, especially with someone else listening in to the conversation, a cleaning woman who would immediately go and tell all and sundry who knows what, Wide open, he ordered. The moment he heard the bolts being drawn back, the man who wanted a boat got up from the step by the door, folded his blanket and waited. These signs that someone was finally going to deal with the matter, which meant that the space by the door would therefore soon be free, brought together a number of other aspiring recipients of the king's generosity who were hanging about nearby ready to claim the place as soon as it became vacant. The unexpected arrival of the king (such a thing had never happened for as long as he had worn the crown) provoked enormous surprise, not only among the aforementioned candidates, but also among the people living on the other side of the street who, attracted by the sudden commotion, were leaning out of their windows. The only person who was not particularly surprised was the man who had come to ask for a boat. He had calculated, and his prediction was proving correct, that the king, even if it took him three days, was bound to be curious to see the face of the person who, for no apparent reason and with extraordinary boldness, had demanded to speak to him. Thus, torn between his own irresistible curiosity and his displeasure at seeing so many people gathered together all at once, the king very ungraciously fired off three questions one after the other, What do you want, Why didn't you say what you wanted straightaway, Do you imagine I have nothing better to do, but the man only answered the first question, Give me a boat, he said. The king was so taken aback that the cleaning woman hurriedly offered him the chair with the straw seat that she herself used to sit on when she had some needlework to do, for, as well as cleaning, she was also responsible for minor sewing chores in the palace, for example, darning the pages' socks. Feeling somewhat awkward, for the chair was much lower than his throne, the king was trying to find the best way to
arrange his legs, first drawing them in, then letting them splay out to either side, while the man who wanted the boat patiently waited for the next question, And may one know what you want this boat for, was what the king did in fact ask when he had finally managed to install himself with a reasonable degree of comfort on the cleaning woman's chair, To go in search of the unknown island, replied the man, What unknown island, asked the king, suppressing his laughter, as if he had before him one of those utter madmen obsessed with sea voyages, whom it would be as well not to cross, at least not straightaway, The unknown island, the man said again, Nonsense, there are no more unknown islands, Who told you, sir, that there are no more unknown islands, They're all on the maps, Only the known islands are on the maps, And what is this unknown island you want to go in search of, If I could tell you that, it wouldn't be unknown, Have you heard someone talking about it, asked the king, more serious now, No, no one, In that case, why do you insist that it exists, Simply because there can't possibly not be an unknown island, And you came here to ask me for a boat, Yes, I came here to ask you for a boat, And who are you that I should give you a boat, And who are you to refuse me one, I am the king of this kingdom, and all the boats in the kingdom belong to me, You belong to them far more than they belong to you, What do you mean, asked the king, troubled, I mean that without them you're nothing, whereas, without you, they can still set sail, Under my orders, with my pilots and my sailors, But I'm not asking you for sailors or a pilot, al
safe, seaworthy boat, I don't want to have him on my conscience if things should go wrong. When the man looked up, this time, one imagines, in order to say thank you for the gift, the king had already withdrawn, and only the cleaning woman was there, looking at him thoughtfully. The man moved away from the door, a signal for the other supplicants finally to approach, there is little point in describing the ensuing confusion, with everyone trying to get to the door first, but alas, the door was once more closed. They banged the bronze doorknocker again to summon the cleaning woman, but the cleaning woman wasn't there, she had turned and left, with her bucket and her broom, by another door, the door of decisions, which is rarely used, but when it is used, it decidedly is. Now one can understand the thoughtful look on the cleaning woman's face, for it was at that precise moment that she had decided to go after the man as he set off to the port to take possession of the boat. She decided 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.
After walking quite a way, the man reached the harbor, went down to the dock, asked for the harbormaster and, while he was waiting for him, set to wondering which of the boats moored there would be his, he knew it wouldn't be large, the king's visiting card was very clear on that point, that excluded the steamships, cargo ships and warships, nor could it be so small that it would not withstand the battering winds or the rigors of the sea, the king had been categorical on that point too, It should be a safe, seaworthy boat, those had been his actual words, thus implicitly excluding rowboats, barges and dinghies, which, although entirely seaworthy and safe, each in its own way, were not made to plough the oceans, which is where one finds unknown islands. A short way away, hidden behind some barrels, the cleaning woman ran her eyes over the moored boats, I fancy that one, she thought, not that her opinion counted, she hadn't even been hired, but first, let's hear what the harbormaster has to say. The harbormaster came, read the card, looked the man up and down, and asked the question the king had
neglected to ask, Do you know how to sail, have you got a master's ticket, to which the man replied, I'll learn at sea. The harbormaster said, I wouldn't recommend it, I'm a sea captain myself and I certainly wouldn't venture out to sea in just any old boat, Then give me one I could venture out in, no, not one like that, give me a boat I can respect and that will respect me, That's sailor's talk, yet you're not a sailor, If I talk like a sailor, then I must be one. The harbormaster reread the king's visiting card, then asked, Can you tell me why you want the boat, To go in search of the unknown island, There are no unknown islands left, That's just what the king said to me, He learned everything he knows about islands from me, It's odd that you, a man of the sea, should say to me that there are no unknown islands left, I'm a man of the land and yet I know that even known islands remain unknown until we set foot on them, But, if I understood you right, you're going in search of one that no one has set foot on, Yes, I'll know it when I get there, If you get there, Well, boats do get wrecked along the way, but if that should happen to me, you must write in the harbor records that I reached such and such a point, You mean that you always reach somewhere, You wouldn't be the man you are if you didn't know that. The harbormaster said, I'm going to give you the boat you need, Which one, It's a very experienced boat, dating from the days when everyone was off searching for unknown islands, Which one, Indeed it may even have found some, Which is it, That one. As soon as the cleaning woman saw where the harbormaster was pointing, she emerged from behind the barrels, shouting, That's my boat, that's my boat, one must forgive her unusual and entirely unjustifiable claim of ownership, the boat just happened to be
the one she had liked too. It looks like a caravel, said the man, It is more or less, agreed the harbormaster, it started life as a caravel, then underwent various repairs and modifications that altered it a bit, But it's still a caravel, Yes, it's pretty much kept its original character, And it's got masts and sails, That's what you need when you go in search of unknown islands. The cleaning woman could contain herself no longer, As far as I'm concerned, that's the boat for me, And who are you, asked the man, Don't you remember me, No, I don't, I'm the cleaning woman, Cleaning what, The king's palace, The woman who opened the door for petitions, The very same, And why aren't you back at the king's palace cleaning and opening doors, Because the doors I really wanted to open have already been opened and because, from now on, I will only clean boats, So you want to go with me in search of the unknown island, I left the palace by the door of decisions, In that case, go and have a look at the caravel, after all this time, it must be in need of a good wash, but watch out for the seagulls, they're not to be trusted, Don't you want to come with me and see what your boat is like inside, You said it was your boat, Sorry about that, I only said it because I liked it, Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking. The harbormaster interrupted their conversation, I have to hand over the keys to the owner of the ship, which of you is it to be, it's up to you, I don't care either way, Do boats have keys, asked the man, Not to get in with, no, but there are store cupboards and lockers, and the captain's desk with the logbook, I'll leave it all up to her, I'm going to find a crew, said the man and walked off.
The cleaning woman went to the harbormaster's office to collect the keys, then she boarded the boat, where two things proved useful to her, the palace broom and the warning about the seagulls, she was only halfway up the gangplank joining the side of the ship to the quay when the wretches hurled themselves upon her, screaming furiously, beaks open, as if they wanted to devour her on the spot. They didn't know who they were dealing with. The cleaning woman set down the bucket, slipped the keys down her cleavage, steadied herself on the gan
would not suffice for this work. The other lockers, she soon discovered, were empty. The fact that there was no gunpowder in the gunpowder locker, just a bit of black dust in the bottom, which she at first took to be mouse droppings, did not bother her in the least, indeed there is no law, at least not to the knowledge of a cleaning woman, that going in search of an unknown island must necessarily be a warlike enterprise. What did greatly annoy her was the complete absence of food rations in the food locker, not for her own sake, for she was more than used to the meager pickings at the palace, but because of the man to whom this boat was given, the sun will soon be going down, and he'll be back clamoring for food, as all men do the moment they get home, as if they were the only ones who had a stomach and a need to fill it, And if he brings sailors back with him to crew the ship, they've always got monstrous appetites, and then, said the cleaning woman, I don't know how we'll manage.
by José Saramago have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes