Reviewed by Jeremy Garber
Shortly after he began writing The Elephant's Journey in 2007, Jose Saramago was stricken with pneumonia and would conclude the year hospitalized in Lanzarote with complications. A mere one day after his discharge the following January, he resumed work on the novel, completing it in August 2008. Hence the book's dedication: "For Pilar, who wouldn't let me die," a tribute to his wife (and translator of his works into Spanish). Saramago would go on to finish another novel (Cain, to be published in English in 2011) before he passed away on the cusp of summer earlier this year at the age of 87.
The Elephant's Journey is Saramago's fictionalized account of the true tale of an elephant given to Archduke Maximilian as a wedding gift from his uncle, King Joao III of Portugal, and its triumphant voyage upon foot and ship from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551. How Saramago became inspired to tell this particular story is as serendipitous as any of the fantastic plots he is famous for having created. Following a guest lecture at the University of Salzburg, Saramago's inquisitive nature, evident during a chance dinner at an Austrian restaurant called The Elephant, provided enough fodder for his imagination to begin churning. He writes, "Certain unknown fates came together that night in the city of Mozart in order that this writer would ask: 'What are those carvings over there?'" Those carvings illustrated the elephant's remarkable 16th-century journey across Europe, and, thus, with the aid of some research, Saramago's 15th novel was born.
Based in historical fact though it may be, The Elephant's Journey is quintessential Saramago storytelling at its finest. The book was aptly rendered from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, the eighth consecutive novel of his she has translated (in addition to her award-winning English adaptations of Fernando Pessoa, Javier Marias, and Eca de Queiroz). Many of the elements that have made his fiction so widely beloved are present, and, as such, both neophyte and devotee will find the book deeply rewarding. While the protracted, picturesque sentences and lack of traditional punctuation that mark Saramago's singular style are of course present, notable herein is his decision to forego the capitalization of proper nouns unless they occur at the beginning of a sentence (perhaps because he chose to recast historical figures and places beyond the realm of recorded fact).
Solomon the elephant (later renamed Suleiman) is richly conceived, as is Subhro, the elephant's mahout. Much of the charm of Saramago's characters rests in the lifelike manner in which he portrays them, often full of wisdom and hospitality, yet just as likely to commit an act of folly or selfishness. His narration of their lives often reflects this duality: "What a strange creature man is, so prone to terrible insomnias over mere nothings and yet capable of sleeping like a log on the eve of battle."
As with every novel, Saramago often veers briefly from the narrative to muse upon the far-reaching ramifications of human nature, history, culture, government, and religion. Strong in his convictions (however often mischaracterized by the international press), he seldom strays into moralizing, but instead offers seemingly simple observations and truisms of everyday life:
People say a lot of things, and not all of them are true, but that is what human beings are like, they can as easily believe that the hair of an elephant, marinated in a little oil, can cure baldness, as imagine that they carry within them the one solitary light that will lead them along life's paths, even through mountain passes. One way or another, as the wise old hermit of the alps once said, we will all have to die.
The Elephant's Journey finds Saramago at his most playful and lighthearted. Though self-described as a pessimist, little trace of his contrarian tendencies is to be found. An overarching sense of adventure is what dominates the story, and however much hardship was endured (whether by sailing to Italy or crossing the Austrian Alps), the characters remain mostly good-natured, aware as they are of both the import and novelty of their attempted feat. Even the occasional aside directed at the reader remains upbeat and spirited.
It's hard to understand just why the archduke maximilian should have decided to make such a journey at this time of year, but that is how it's set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar. Or a mahout, despite the hare-brained fantasies to which, either by birth or profession, they seem to be prone.
After nearly a full calendar year, and some 1,800 or so miles over land and sea, the elephant and his entourage finally arrive in Vienna. With their destination reached, pachyderm, procession, and reader alike are enjoined in an exultation that from the outset may have seemed somewhat unlikely. The Elephant's Journey is a fantastic story of determination, and, like so many of his novels, succeeds on many a level. Saramago, with all his many gifts for telling a compelling tale, ought to be remembered for his grace, his inimitable humor, and the resplendent humanity he brought to each of his works.
The Portuguese government declared two days of mourning upon his death in June, and some 20,000 people attended his funeral. While a controversial figure to many, he left behind an acclaimed and accomplished body of work (including nearly two dozen works of poetry, drama, short stories, essays, journalism, diaries, a libretto, and a children's book -- all of which have yet to be translated into English). Jose Saramago was long an important and respected figure in international letters, and with his death the world has lost a literary great. The epigraph for The Elephant's Journey could not be any more succinctly or aptly put: "In the end, we always arrive at the place where we are expected."
Books mentioned in this post