In Search of the Unknown Island

After rereading Jose Saramago’s slim Tale of the Unknown Island again this morning, I wondered if Saramago, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, had ever found a good alternative to reality, or if he just kept searching throughout his life.

The Tale of the Unknown Island is a fifty-one page allegory with the width of my iPhone but with the breadth of a sharp and timely political treatise. Two brave people under the rule of a malevolent king find courage with one another to search for a better life.  I marked the page with the words: “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.” In the end, they sail away in a boat, content and hopeful, looking for the Unknown Island they’ve already found in each other.

I looked for Saramago’s life story and found In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Saramago recalls the inspiration of his grandfather – “The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write.”

Saramago recalled he wrote Blindness (a morbid tale but appropriate for our times) “to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures...trying to exorcise the monsters generated by the blindness of reason, {he} started writing the simplest of all stories: one person is looking for another, because he has realised that life has nothing more important to demand from a human being.”

Saramago’s stories are full of parables, stories with lessons civilization evidently still has to learn. Find The Tale of the Unknown Island.  This short tale may offer some hope.

Read my review of Blindness here.

Related Information: Saramago’s Nobel Lecture

Saramago’s “Blindness” – How People React to Disaster

Why would I look for fiction about a pandemic?  Seeking literary meaning in a world of apocalyptic possibilities, I found Jill Lapore’s article for the New Yorker – What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About

(the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human),

listing so many choices for fiction from the fourteenth century Decameron to Camus’s The Plague.  Mary Frankenstein wrote a story scarier than Frankenstein in The Last Man, imagining the extinction of the human race by a global pandemic, but the most appealing was Jose Saramago’s Blindness.

I knew Saramago from his slim but powerful volume, The Elephant’s Journey, a book I had picked up in a bookstore years ago for its appearance – small and thin, easy to slide into my travel bag – not knowing the weight of its message. Although the author wrote over two hundred books and won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I had never looked for more of his stories.  Now here was Blindness, a book about a pandemic striking its victims blind – not a cheery topic in this real time of global infection promising an end to the world as we know it.  Wisely rebuffed by my friends for a Zoom book discussion, the book was hauntingly appealing to me for its relevance. I decided to read it.

From the first Saramago drew me into a tense and wary scene.  This man who never wore glasses and was in perfect health had stopped at a red light while driving, blinked, and suddenly was blind – seeing not a black void but a white impenetrable denseness.  Because the author never uses quotation marks in the running dialogue, the action seems more intense. The newly blind man’s thoughts are interspersed with his conversation with others – his rescuer, his wife, the doctor.  Amazingly, this style never confuses the reader; rather magnifies the characters’ feelings and invites the reader into the story.  I felt I could shout out warnings and be heard as I read, as one by one the blindness spreads from the good Samaritan who helps the first blind man home and then steals his car to the ophthalmologist the man consults and to everyone in the waiting room.

As more and more are afflicted, noone is named.  The reader can identify them as the Doctor, the Doctor’s wife, the woman with the sunglasses, the man with the black patch, the dog of tears.  The government decides to isolate the initial group in an empty mental hospital, treating them minimally with boxes of food twice a day.  The conditions are horrific, but only one person can see it – the wife of the ophthalmologist who feigned blindness to be with her husband.  The conditions get worse as more blind are afflicted and packed into quarantine, and outsiders become more fearful.

The story inside escalates to a war between those first blind and those newly blind.  Food becomes more precious than gold, and sanitation is abandoned to squalor as the toilets break down with no one to repair them.  The newly blind find a way to keep the others from going out to the courtyard to retrieve the boxes of food dropped by the soldiers before they run in fear of contamination.  The leader has a gun and at first, this group demands payment for food by rings, bracelets, watch fobs – anything of value; when this runs out, they demand payment in women.

The wife of the doctor, hiding her ability to see, sneaks in during one of these rape scenes, and using her sewing scissors stabs the leader in the neck, killing him.  More riots follow, but as the first group runs into the courtyard to plea for help from the armed soldiers, they realize they have been deserted.  They escape into the city to discover everyone has gone blind, some wandering the streets in small hordes looking for food.

In 2010 Myla Goldberg wrote in a review for NPR:

Saramago describes disaster’s potential to bring out both the best and worst of people, from the misguided actions of the city government, to the clear-headed ministrations of a blinded doctor and the bravery of his sighted wife…Saramago tackles all of human nature — love, loyalty, fear, jealousy, bravery, heroism, cowardice, violence, happiness, disappointment — it’s all in there,

Moments of brutality scrape against acts of kindness throughout.  Although this is a dark story, elements of humor and adventure puncture the misery – even a love story surfaces.  The ending is a happy and hopeful one but not without irony.