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.
– José Saramago, The Tale of the Unknown Island (17)
The Tale of the Unknown Island, is a sweet book, wonderfully illustrated by Peter Sis. I did not find it in the children’s section of my library, but it could just as easily have been cataloged there. Saramago’s fable of a man who asks the King for a boat in which to go searching for the unknown island is a tale for all ages. What is this island that no one believes exists? Well, that is the delicacy of the tale, which was not lost on my ten-year-old son, to whom I read the book.
Of course, the hero is dismissed, no one thinks he will find one, because there are no more unknown islands, no one even wants to try. No one except the King’s cleaning woman.
My son puzzled over the door of decisions for quite a while. I suppose he has not yet encountered any, so he had to think about what that might mean to the cleaning woman who, as he put, “basically had to do everything!”
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. (25)
Anyone who is familiar with Saramago’s work may be used to his preference for commas in the place of quotation marks. I appreciate the visual continuity and implied flow of natural conversation, but it is a little tricky to read aloud and I am glad I put in my years of reading Dr. Seuss aloud in intense practice.
The flame [of the candle] took, grew slowly like the moonlight, lit the face of the cleaning woman, there’s no need to say what he thought, She’s lovely, but what she thought was this, He’s obviously got eyes only for the unknown island, just one example of how people can misinterpret the look in another person’s eyes, especially when they’ve only just met. (41)
At the book’s end I felt a quieter version of what I felt when I finished Saramago’s Baltazar and Blimunda, my hand on my heart I turned to look at my son. “It’s kind of lovey dovey,” he said. “Augie, lovey dovey is where it’s at,” I told him. “I’m just a kid,” he reminded me. “Well, I’ll lovey you until some nice girl comes along and gives you some dovey,” and I kissed his face as we laid on the bed giggling thinking about the unknown island.
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. (29)
*translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa