- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; First Edition edition (7 July 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0099546884
- ISBN-13: 978-0099546887
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.3 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,93,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Elephant's Journey Paperback – 7 Jul 2011
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"It is extremely funny. Old Saramago writes with a masterfully light hand, and the humour is tender, a mockery so tempered by patience and pity that the sting is gone though the wit remains vital... a series of contained miracles of absurdity, quiet laughter rising out of a profound, resigned, affectionate wisdom" (Ursula K Le Guin Guardian)
"The novel has a charming fairy tale quality, with its kings and courtiers, it pachyderm protagonist and his mysterious mahout: this is amoung the most charming of Saramago's works" (Michael Kerrigan Times Literary Supplement)
"The Elephant's Journey is well worth picking up" (Syndicated review to local papers)
"José Saramango wrote his final book with great panache" (Margaret Reynolds The Times)
"Saramago enjoys filling out the details with improvisatory skill and imagination" (John Spurling Sunday Times)
Nobel prizewinner Saramago always has something new up his sleeve: this time he has written a delightful historical fable about an Indian elephant called Solomon, who, in obedience to the absurd caprice of a sixteenth-century monarch, travels from Lisbon to Vienna to become a wedding gift for an emperor.See all Product description
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While at the University of Salzburg delivering lectures, Salamago dined at a restaurant called the Elephant. There he noticed some carvings, a series of small wooden sculptures that traced an elephant trek from Lisbon's Torre de Belem, destination Vienna. Saramago was fascinated, researched the historical facts, and created this tribute to courage and folly.
Worrying that their previous wedding gift to the new King of Spain (their new neighbor) was inadequate, the King and Queen of Portugal decide to regift a present from India, the elephant Solomon. After all, they rationalize, he and his keeper Subhro had been vegetating for two years since arriving in Portugal. As the King of Spain is traveling to Vienna, they selfishly devise a plan to send Soloman to intercept the King on his journey to Vienna. This shortens the trip and rids Portuguese royalty of a burden.
So begins the drama, poetically told with sly humor and criticism. Saramago relates the silly, dangerous, self-preserving motives of royalty and common folk of the time, letting the reader decide if these human traits are present today.
I'm not disappointed (well, maybe just a twinge). Blindness was what I tend to call an archetypal novel, similar to Coetzee's Waiting For The Barbarians. Where Blindness was a morality play of sorts on humanity's tendency to baseness, the Elephant's Journey is simply a story. But a cleverly written story that displays Saramago's propensity for philosophy, and his wry views on religion and human nature.
Saramago died this year (2010) at the age of eighty-eight. First, I have to give the man his props for writing so well at that age. And I also have to admire his consistency in flouting grammatical rules. There's more to admire, but first a few words on the story.
In the mid-1500s, Portugal's king decides to gift the Austrian Archduke Maximilian with a quaint gift - and Indian elephant named Solomon. The story, then, is one of the elephant and his mahout, or keeper/driver, Subhro, making the long trip from Portugal to Vienna. That's the story. Really.
But in Saramago's hands, we gain many peripheral but eminently valuable insights. First, a view of the sixteenth century and the manner of travel, and then a bit of European geography. But this is merely the skeleton of a compelling story, not its lifeblood. Saramago seems to construct his stories with a talent few writers seem to have - he writes in a way that allows his narrator equal billing with his characters, but without shoving his characters to the background. This allows Saramago himself to participate in the literary fantasy as the narrator's alter ego, again without damage to characters, story, or narration.
Let me give you some examples of his transparent wit as it plays out in the story:
(pg. 182) The caravan is negotiating a dangerous pass in the Alps. Such a passage could have been dramatized by putting the reader deep into the elements with the caravan. Instead Saramago begins thusly:
"Egotism, generally held to be one of the most negative and repudiated of human characteristics, can, in certain circumstances, have its good side...Who would have thought it, not only is a moral act not always what it appears to be, but the more it contradicts itself the more effective it is." What follows is a hilarious, every man for himself gallop of elephant, mahout, guards, and royal personages through the pass, an avalanche in their wake.
In another pass, the opposite happens:
(pg 192) "We are now inside the Brenner pass. On the Archduke's express orders, utter silence reigns. This time the convoy, as if fear had produced a congregational effect, shows not the slightest tendency to disperse..."
And a final one, on safer ground:
(pg. 200) "The weather is far from perfect...but compared with the Iscaro and Brenner passes, this could easily be the road to paradise, although it's unlikely roads exist in the celestial place, because souls, once they've fulfilled the necessary entrance requirements, are immediately equipped with a pair of wings, the only authorized means of locomotion up there."
This gives a hint of Saramago's skills as a narrator, as well as of his wit, and insight into humanity. It's no accident that the story is almost solely one of a journey. Such treks are similar to the universal loss of sight in Blindness, in that they take travelers from their accustomed environment and place them in something more alien, all the while trying to keep up some semblance of life's normalcy.
If Saramago's vision is about one thing, this is it - humans coping with events outside their normal grasp.
Saramago isn't a particularly easy read, but his works - this one included - will no doubt live a long time.
Criminy! I thought that chant was an artifact of civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, but José Saramago slips it into the mouth of a Portuguese village priest in 1551, in the act of exorcizing an elephant that his parishioners have taken to be God. Golly, do you suppose Saramago was being coy?
This is a coy and clever parable, hardly a 'novel' in the sense of having a plot. It really does describe the journey of an Indian elephant and a perspicacious Hindi mahout from Lisbon to Valladolid, Genoa, Mantua, Trent, Bolzano, and finally to Vienna. The elephant is the gift of Portuguese King João III to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian. Escorting an elephant across Europe in the 16th C, at the height of the furor of the Reformation, was hardly a routine chore, and the journey is comically hampered by absurd logistics, pratfalls and mishaps. No, don't worry, the elephant isn't anthropomorphized. It trudges, trumpets, guzzles, and pizzles as an elephant should. The mahout is a bit of a shape-changer, a humble karmic Sancho Panza to the pachyderm Solomon. But the real protagonist of the tale is Saramago himself, an ever-diverting narrator -- diverting in both senses -- whose mind skips from past to present, from pertinence to impertinence, as agilely as a flea on an elephant's flanks. The whole journey is simply Saramago's pretext for sardonic mockery of Might and the Almighty, of the Crown and the Cross, with ample measures of affectionate scorn for the follies of 'little people' also. Are you eager to see the elephant? You'd be more amused, Saramago implies, if you could see your own absurd humanity in a mirror.
The 20th Century will be known to future scholars as the 'century of the run-on sentence.' Saramago's run-on sentences, eccentrically punctuated and capitalized, are hardly difficult to follow, not by 20th C standards, and they serve very comfortably to keep the reader engaged with the author. This is not the sort of novel that indulges the reader in vicarious emotions. It's a satirical stroll through history with José Saramgo chatting constantly. It's a comic monologue about humanity's sense of its past. Saramago writes: "The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a road, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each on because they need to know what lies beneath."
An elephant doesn't walk very fast over dry plateaus and snowy mountain passes, especially when its fodder is being carried along in ox-carts. Be ready for a leisurely journey of words if you choose to read this book! The more leisurely you are, the more you'll relish it.