‘A fitting end-note to the author’s career’ – The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

The English translation of The Elephant’s Journey is the latest work by José Saramago and the first to hit the shelves since his death in June 2010.  It’s a short novel and a light read, and though it features much of the author’s trademark wit and irreverence, it’s not as politically or socially scathing as you might be used to if your Saramago diet has centred on books like Blindness or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, it’s funny and it’s engaging, and it’s as stylistically idiosyncratic as ever.

So what’s it about?  Well, shockingly – the journey of an elephant.  Saramago has based his story on a true-life tale – in 1551 King João III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian of Austria a present of an Indian elephant.  The beast and his handler, or mahout, had to travel from Lisbon to Vienna by foot and by boat, and the novel gives us a fictional account of that trip.  It’s fairly episodic, following the different stages of the journey and the challenges the party faced – fog, rain, treacherous mountain passes.  The elephant himself, Solomon, is the central, albeit mute, character and his mahout, Subhro, acts as his interpreter.  The rest of the cast is pretty fluid, as the Portuguese court hands Solomon over to the troops that accompany him to meet the Austrian committee that guides him to see the Emperor – and then there are the various locals they meet on the way, from the priest who tries to fake a miracle by getting Solomon to kneel at his church’s door, to the peasants who overhear a conversation about Ganesh and become convinced that Solomon is God Incarnate so that their sceptical priest has to perform a fake exorcism to rid the animal of tricky devils.  It’s an eventful, colourful journey, and though there’s no real driving narrative force or tension (it’s obvious enough that both Solomon and Subhro will arrive safely in Vienna), and so it’s clearly not a plot-driven page turner, it is nonetheless very funny.  If you like a meandering, anecdotal conversation of a book, you should get along just fine with this – and if you like Saramago’s winding sentences and cutting sense of humour, you’ll find them both intact here.

There’s a rather philosophical bent to the text at times – Subhro is prone to holding forth about how his charge sees the world, and how people ought to interpret his actions.  I guess these pronouncements are meant to be funny, but I found them a little irksome after a while and preferred it when Saramago got back to his usual sideswipes at society and storytelling.  The Spanish Inquisition gets a good roasting here, as does the conventions of historical fiction, with Saramago announcing flat out that he couldn’t be bothered working out sixteenth century conventions (like measurements) and expecting the reader to grapple with them.  At the same time, though, Subhro’s earnest explanations highlight the theme of acceptance and tolerance that runs throughout the book.  The Emperor is very dismissive of both elephant and mahout, changing their names and refusing to treat them with the affection they’d grown used to from their Portuguese companions – but at the end, when Solomon saves a young girl’s life, the Emperor changes his mind and accepts both Subhro and Solomon into his court.  So it’s an optimistic books, unlike much of Saramago’s output, and thus it seems like a fitting end-note to the author’s career – not his most memorable or exciting book, but a gently humorous and likeable one.

Any Cop?: It’s a gently humorous romp through the countryside, and Saramago’s always a good read. I prefer the darker stuff, but maybe I’m just morbid – this one’s worth checking out. And who doesn’t love elephants? 

Valerie O’Riordan

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