“A MAN WENT TO KNOCK AT THE KING’S DOOR AND said, Give me a boat.”
In “The Tale of the Unknown Island” by José Saramago
I love the way Saramago builds this parable by using the Portuguese King D. João II and Columbus. He went to Lisbon in 1476 and remained here for several years, seeking the support of King D. João II and gathering nautical and geographic intelligence from the returning sailors. Why did we want to embark on the Age of Discoveries? Easy: We saw a niche begging to be literally explored. On the other hand, Spain was fighting the Moors, the Turks were attacking Italy, and Austria and France and Britain were fighting each other in the Hundred Year War. Portugal, on the other hand, was a united kingdom with relatively few internal problems and enemies. Smart, uh? We’re always looking for an opportunity to shine bright…
I think the biscuit-tin view of Portugal's place in the world is absolutely more pervasive (and comically skewed) than is generally recognised. The outlook of a born-and-bred Portuguese is too often one of ugly prejudice hidden under a facade of dignified national pride. Our attitudes regarding many other countries reeks of the idea that we are still at the top looking down over the world. Unfortunately, an almost slavish devotion to the US in matters both economic and military over recent decades makes the real situation clear (look at what happened in Azores, a Portuguese Island in the middle of the Atlantic). And it sucks. But it's best to see the world for what it is rather than clinging to this tattered superiority complex.
The past is a foreign country - we have no reason to feel pride or shame by anything that happened there, because we didn't do it. For the vast majority of us, our ancestors didn't do it either - they were busy exploring the seas in the 1400s under the aegis of Prince Henry, digging coal, weaving cotton, farming fields, and neither did they have any say in what happened as the empire was well advanced by the time universal suffrage came into force. Maybe we need to look at exactly where Portugal and its former colonies would be today, had there been no empire and also look at Belgium, Spain, Britain, France and Holland's colonial past to contextualise things somewhat.
I'm not drawing any conclusions as I don't purport to be an expert or have any answers. I've just loved this parable of the Portuguese Sea Discoveries (The Americas, India, etc.)
Perhaps the fact that José Saramago was a Portuguese writer makes the idea of writing a book called "The Tale of the Unknown Island" extremely appropriate. This is because we ourselves had our time to go out into the world and make great discoveries through maritime explorations. Nothing more fitting than a Portuguese writing a story where someone wants to discover an unknown island. But this individual wants to find an island that nobody knows, located in a sea where everything to be found has already been found. “The Tale of the Unknown Island” is a work that speaks about ourselves and "converses" with us in a very peculiar way. This is a must for anyone who wants to start the adventure that is reading Saramago, for those who have already embarked on this trip, and also for those who are looking for something simple and smooth, giving us another vision of life and of the lessons we must draw from it.
Bottom-line: We can understand each island as a person: the "known islands" are people who have already reached self-knowledge (or think they have). As to the "unknown islands", I always see them as people who do not know who they are or who are in search of themselves.