Cover image for The tale of the unknown island
The tale of the unknown island
Saramago, José.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Conto da ilha desconhecida. English
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt, [1999]

Physical Description:
51 pages : illustrations ; 18 cm
Reading Level:
NP Lexile.
Added Author:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
FICTION Adult Fiction Central Library

On Order



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 shortnarrative 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.

Author Notes

José Saramago was born on November 16, 1922. He spent most of his childhood on his parent's farm, except while attending school in Lisbon. Before devoting himself exclusively to writing novels in 1976, he worked as a draftsman, a publisher's reader, an editor, translator, and political commentator for Diario de Lisboa.

He is indisputably Portugal's best-known literary figure and his books have been translated into more than 25 languages. Although he wrote his first novel in 1947, he waited some 35 years before winning critical acclaim for work such as the Memorial do Convento. His works include The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, Baltasar and Blimunda, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and Blindness.

At age 75, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 for his work in which "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony, continually enables us to apprehend an elusory reality." He died from a prolonged illness that caused multiple organ failure on June 18, 2010 at the age of 87.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In 1998 Nobel laureate Saramago's parable, a man persists in knocking on the door of a king. After three days, the king himself opens the door and asks the man what he wants. He wants a boat so that he may search for the unknown island. After questioning the wisdom of such a mission, the king agrees to give the man a boat. When the man heads for the harbor with royal permit in hand, the king's cleaning lady follows him, determined to exchange her present duties for swabbing the decks of the ship of exploration. After the boat is secured from the harbormaster, the woman more intrudes than introduces herself and sets about making things shipshape while the man, who has no sailing experience, goes into town to recruit a crew. He returns alone and unsuccessful, though with food for himself and the woman. They bed down on opposite sides of the boat, and the man dreams of being on the voyage of discovery. The man and woman wake in one another's arms, and they set out at midday on the boat, which they have named The Unknown Island. It is possible to be irked by the ploy of publishing a short story at the price of a trade paperback, but when the story proves as ingratiating as Saramago's, one's annoyance is considerably lessened. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, Saramago (History of the Siege of Lisbon) departs from his signature dense, inventive linguistic style and historically encompassing subjects to offer a simple, intriguing fable. This short, illustrated book begins as a fairy tale with a decidedly political inflection: an unnamed man waits by the king's door for petitions, a door the king neglects because he's occupied at the door for favors ("favors being offered to the king, you understand"). The man's tenacity happily coincides with the monarch's fear of a popular revolt, which results in the king begrudgingly granting the man a seaworthy boat with which he can sail to find "the unknown island." A philosophical discussion about whether such an island exists or is findable precedes the king's acquiescence, and the reader understands that the man is a dreamer, with bold imagination and will. The king's cleaning woman also intuits this, and she leaves the palace to join the man in his adventure. The two would-be explorers claim the boat, only to realize they have no provisions or crew. They elude despair with a celebratory meal and a burgeoning romance. Whether the vessel, newly christened The Unknown Island, ever finds its destination remains a mystery, but a crucial and tender suggestion persists: follow your dream and your dream will follow. More cynical readers may interpret the moral as "be careful what you wish for; you might get it." At the book's close, the man tosses in a dream marked with a desperate yearning for the cleaning woman and filled with images of lush flora and fauna thriving in the boat. Saramago tells his deceptively plain tale in simple prose studded with the dialogue of endearingly innocent characters; readers, dreamers and lovers will detect the psychological, romantic and social subtexts. (Nov.) FYI: Harcourt will simultaneously issue the paperback edition of Blindness. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A Nobel prize winner's fable about a man who petitions an indolent king for a boat. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.