Friday, 8 February 2013

The Elephant's Journey- Jose Saramago

Paperback, 200 pages
Published 2010 by Harvill Secker (first published 2008)
1846553601 (ISBN13: 9781846553608)
edition language
original title
A viagem do elefante


In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant's journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as "a triumph of language, imagination, and humor" (El País).

Solomon and his keeper, Subhro, begin in dismal conditions, forgotten in a corner of the palace grounds. When it occurs to the king and queen that an elephant would be an appropriate wedding gift, everyone rushes to get them ready: Subhro is given two new suits of clothes and Solomon a long overdue scrub.

Accompanied by the Archduke, his new wife, and the royal guard, our unlikely heroes traverse a continent riven by the Reformation and civil wars. They make their way through the storied cities of northern Italy: Genoa, Piacenza, Mantua, Verona, Venice, and Trento, where the Council of Trent is in session. They brave the Alps and the terrifying Isarco and Brenner Passes; they sail across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Inn River (elephants, it turns out, are natural sailors). At last they make their grand entry into the imperial city. The Elephant’s Journey is a delightful, witty tale of friendship and adventure

My review

Portuguese King João III and his wife, Catarina, were trying to decide what to give Archduke Maximilian of Austria as a wedding gift. The queen suggests the elephant, Solomon, who came to them from India two years ago, but has "done nothing but eat and sleep" since then. They decide that Solomon and his mahout, Subhro, will travel first to Valladolid, Spain, where the archduke is residing as Regent of Spain. From there, it will be the responsibility of the Archduke and his wife, Maria, daughter of Charles V, to get the elephant to Vienna.
Spun around this silly real life event is Jose Sarmagao’s novel ‘The Elephant’s Journey’. I wouldn’t waste time talking about the characters because they do not matter here. What made the difference was the narration. Royalty, humor, reality and fiction have been beautifully combined. No doubt there was some flawless literature in there but the tales creatively drifted a little too far away from reality. As a reader at a point of time I felt the author lived inside the narrator. He seemed to be speaking his own mind through the narrator. He writes, and I quote.

‘We hereby recognize that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have had cause of speak of Austria and its people was not only aggressive, but patently unfair. Not that this was our intention, but you know how it is with writing, one word often brings along another in its train simply because they sound good together, even if this means sacrificing respect for levity and ethics for aesthetics, if such solemn concepts are not out of place in a discourse such as this, and often to no one's advantage either. It is in this and other ways, almost without our realizing it, that we make so many enemies in life.’

‘News of the miracle had reached the doge's palace, but in somewhat garbled form, the result of the successive transmissions of facts, true or assumed, real or purely imaginary, based on everything from partial, more or less eyewitness accounts to reports from those who simply liked the sound of their own voice, for, as we know all too well, no one telling a story can resist adding a period, and sometimes even a comma.’


I usually do not quote this much from any of the books but this one forced me to. This particular author does not use punctuations like others and it makes it difficult for you to understand the true meaning of what a particular character says. He does not use inverted comma or anything but goes on to write long paragraphs that last through pages and pages making it look like a hard to understand prose to read. But tada, you read it with all your attention and before you know you’re done with those 205 pages.

He does not force his beliefs on us, the readers. He makes it sound so obvious that well it seems like an innate quality that no one can deny. He defines the word finesse with his writing. The plot may be royal, the set up may be historical in approach but there is nothing historical about the book. Jose makes Solomon seem so adorable to me. Finally, a quote that reflects too much about him,

"Like magicians, elephants have their secrets. When forced to choose between speaking and remaining silent, an elephant always chooses silence, that is why his trunk grew so long, so that, apart from being capable of transporting tree trunks and serving as an elevator for his mahout, it had the added advantage of being a serious obstacle to any bouts of uncontrolled loquacity."
5 on 5.

About The Author

He is a Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist. He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party.
His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He founded the National Front for the Defense of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with among others Freitas-Magalhaes. He lived on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he died in June 2010.

A foundation with his name was established in 2007; its main aims are cultural promotion, particularly of Portuguese literature and authors. The José Saramago Foundation is currently based in Casa dos Bicos, a Portuguese landmark building in Lisbon. Saramago's house in Lanzarote is also open to the public.

José Saramago, together with his wife Pilar, were the subject of the award-winning documentary José e Pilar, providing us with a glimpse into their love story and life, as he was writing his A Viagem do Elefante


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