11 September 2017 •
'And then what happened?': Margaret Jull CostaJosé Saramago came from the poorest of backgrounds – his grandparents, on both sides, were illiterate agricultural workers, and his father ‘rose’ in the world to become a policeman in Lisbon, where the family lived in cramped and insalubrious lodgings, and where, given scant schooling, Saramago virtually taught himself to read from the newspaper his father brought home each day. Saramago was also partly brought up in the country with his much-loved grandparents and, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said of his grandfather:
…sometimes, on hot summer nights, after supper, my grandfather would say to me: ‘José, tonight we’ll go and sleep underneath the fig tree.’… For as long as I remained awake, the night would be alive with the stories my grandfather would tell me: legends, ghosts, marvels, remarkable events, deaths that happened long ago, fights involving sticks and stones, the words of our ancestors, a tireless murmur of memories that simultaneously kept me wide awake and gently lulled me to sleep. I never knew if he stopped speaking as soon as he realised I had fallen asleep, or if he went on talking so as not to leave unanswered the question I always asked him in the long pauses he deliberately left in his stories: ‘And then what happened?’
Out of these early experiences of both poverty and the wonders of storytelling came Saramago’s sympathy for and understanding of the less fortunate, as well as his own wonderful storytelling skills. His subject matter is, almost unvaryingly, the ordinary man or woman pitted against stupid, blind authority. The opening section of The Tale of the Unknown Island tells us everything we need to know:
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 favours (favours 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 neighbourhood (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.
This puts the king firmly in his place, and, just as importantly, makes the reader ask the question ‘Why?’ Why does this man want a boat and why should the king give him one? It also introduces us to that fluid, seamless, almost conversational style, which instantly engages us, as if we were lying under a fig tree, listening to a story and asking: ‘And then what happened?’ It’s a style that privileges the ordinary human voice, the spoken word.
Portugal, like England, was a seafaring nation, and, in the book, the ship the king gives to the man is a caravel, which was precisely the kind of ship that the Portuguese explorers sailed in when they set off around the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They, too, were looking for the unknown island, when so much of the world was unknown. ‘Caravel’ is instantly evocative of the great Age of Discovery, but this voyage of discovery is at once more modest and more ambitious, since the man has no experience of the sea or of sailing and is hoping to discover only one unknown island, not an entire continent. I wonder if somewhere in Saramago’s head were the words of Portugal’s greatest poet, Fernando Pessoa: ‘To travel, you need only to exist.’ Does the unknown island represent life or fate or is the cleaning woman who joins him on board ship both life and fate? For they are both unknown islands to each other.