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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: 'The Elephant's Journey'

By Jose Saramago
September 2010
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547352589
Men have been many things over the years -- ignorant, greedy, forgetful, inconstant, loyal, intelligent, hard-working and inspired. To the fortunate, their companions have been animals. When that happens, animal companions represent the best of these qualities that mankind wishes or believes it displays.

Such is the case with the quiet, stolid Indian elephant Solomon in Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's last novel, The Elephant's Journey. Saramago, who died this summer, took the true tale of an elephant that was regifted from King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian as a wedding present in 1551, and turned it into a rambling fable of small acts and, when least expected, large emotions.

Solomon has been left, forgotten and dirtier by the day, in Lisbon after he and his mahout Subhro became the king of Portugal's property. The king suddenly remembers Solomon and decides he would make a boffo wedding gift to the archduke, whose good side he wants to stay on. Like Dorothy and her friends getting spiffed up before meeting the wizard, Solomon and Subhro are cleaned up and sent on their way with a large entourage.

While making slow progress across the Portugese countryside, Subhro and the military leader in charge of the contingent go from uneasy working partners to genuine friends. In the low-key, half sardonic, half old wise grandfatherly way that Saramago tells the story, the friendship has been formed without overt signs pointing to it. But when it's mentioned as they part, it makes complete sense.

Not much seemingly happens until that point but Saramago lays the foundation for what will be in the first half of his story. Then the Portugese army contigent and military hotshot Austrian horse guard nearly battle over who will have the honor of escorting Solomon on the rest of his journey. This is when Saramago's asides and ramblings that shape the narrative show their worth, because what happens may not matter to the reader as much as what the events bring to the narrator's mind.

And then Solomon bids goodbye to those who will not accompany him farther along his way. Simple, touching and utterly enchanting. Because Saramago has written the novel in a rambling fable style overlaid with the sweetest hint of fairy tale magic, this is where many readers will fall completely in love with this elephant and his story.

When the archduke meets his gift, the first thing this bossy royal does is change the names of the elephant and his mahout. Subhro's musing on this turn of events conveys more about the nature of wealth and power that many large volumes. The commentary on power continues when Subhro is tricked into granting the request of a village priest met along the way, and how Solomon plays his role. It's all to do with trying to score a public relations victory over that irksome Martin Luther for the church, and all to do with how a servant knows his place.

The name change and priest's request are part of a whole, considering the archduke changes the elephant's name from Solomon, wise king of the Old Testament, to Suleiman, the magnificent sultan of the Ottoman Empire. To have the sultan bowing before the church, and for it to not be a triumph, is all Saramago needs to say about worth of those who command, rather than earn, fealty.

Combine the priest's request with Solomon's earlier farewell, and then the understated story of his entry into Vienna and a little girl is all the sweeter.

When the contigent meets the Italian Alps, the journey truly becomes epic. This involves great heart and courage. It makes the ending all the more poignant.
The Elephant's Journey is not told in a straight-forward style. Its events and characters are described by a know-it-all, rambling storyteller who wasn't even there. Don't expect traditional punctuation. Saramago doesn't even worry about capitalization on occasion. The result is a read that propels itself forward, taking note of what the story's voice relates rather than the conventions of storytelling, and with it a willingness to let one's own mind wander and wonder about what's really important. What comes through is the power of friendship and the strength of loyalty.

Solomon's story is both a trifle and a parable, a fable and a legend. It's a lovely way for Saramago to say goodbye.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. Sounds like familar Saramago ground fable ,parable so much of his work used these tools ,I do hope to get to this book at some point I have a few of his older books to read as well ,all the best stu

  2. Hi Stu; hope all is well. This was a pleasing tale overall and a small book, just over 200 pages. I know the feeling about getting to more books "at some point".

  3. What a lovely review and a very touching last paragraph. I'm so sad that Saramago died, but agree that if any book could be his last this seems like the right one.

    One thing I noticed with this book was that the puncuation seemed random instead of absent. There were points in the book when Lisbon was capitalised when most of the time it wasn't. Do you think he meant to do this or he/an editor accidently capitilised sometimes?

  4. Thanks so much, Jackie.

    I think his punctuation and capitalization were random to convey their unimportance. Saramago did the same with basic story elements or written storytelling conventions, such as a big buildup to an event that either didn't take place or turned out to not mean very much.

    In this instance, his unconventional ways helped propel me along. To other readers, though, these may well cause them to roll their eyes and give up.

  5. Wonderful Review Lynne. I particularly liked the beginning. Animals. Saramago had been a life long admirer and a sensitive observer of them. Remember, the dog Found. Very few authors have dealt with animals with a genuine natural compassion. You hv made me excited to pick this book up v soon. I cant wait anymore :)
    thanks for sharing.

  6. Excellent point about the animals, Jasmeet. Saramago has a way of writing with sensitivity about them but without overdoing sentimentality. I hope you have the chance to read this one soon.

    Thanks so much for commenting.