The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago and Margaret Jull Costa

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The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago and Margaret Jull Costa

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: A lyrical, fictionalised account of a true journey taken by an elephant and his entourage through Reformation Europe, written by Portuguese Nobel Laureate Saramago. The grammar makes this charming fable difficult to read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099546887

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This novel is inspired by a real event – the marriage gift of an elephant from Dom João III of Portugal to his cousin Maximilian, the Hapsburg Archduke of Austria. When the gift was accepted, the elephant Solomon, his mahout Subhro and numerous soldiers, oxen and porters, walked from Lisbon to Vienna to deliver the present, arriving in 1552. This is the story of that journey.

From the beginning this is a very wittily told tale. Of course, the very fact of the journey is an amusement in itself. These are towns, villages and people who would have never seen a real elephant, or even an accurate picture of one, so there is great scope for inventive drama. So the elephant is exorcised in one village, and required to perform a miracle outside the basilica of another, as the priest needs ammunition against the tidal wave of support for Luther. Of course, the climb over the Alps provides comparisons with Hannibal. There are constant conundrums facing such a large procession such as how to get enough oxen to pull the fodder-cart and whether the elephant will sink the ship that will take them across to Genoa – these are lightly and charmingly expressed.

Part of the wit of the book comes from the omniscient narrator who takes the reader into the heads of most of the key characters in the story – the King, the commander of the soldiers, the oxen drivers and in particular the mahout, only skittering away from giving the reader the thoughts of the elephant as it struggles to complete its exhausting journey. These are characters plagued by self doubt and anxiety and are humorously portrayed – I liked the thought processes of the Austrian soldiers facing up to the Portuguese soldiers, both anxious not to cause a war between their countries, with the narrator's aside that said war would have to take place in a mutually agreed area of France… Both the Portuguese king and the Austrian Archduke are splendidly capricious in their points of view. The narrator also gives an anchronistic counterpoint to the story, commenting with wry 21st century asides.

However, it is the mahout Subhro (renamed Fritz by the Archduke) and the elephant itself who are the bedrock of the story. Subhro provides an outsider's view of the Catholicism of the time, comparing it to his favourite Hindu story of Ganesh. Subhro's varying fortunes during his journey and his musings to the people he encounters offer a philosophy of life itself. Solomon the elephant provides the reader with charm. His farewell to the porters as they leave to return to Lisbon and he anoints each of their raised right hands with his trunk is an enduring image.

Overall, this book should be a warm and endearing fable. However, the style in which it is written makes it a difficult read. Saramago has eschewed the familiar, accepted rules of grammar. There are few paragraph breaks (I counted seven pages at one point without a paragraph). He has abandoned the rules of direct and indirect speech, preferring sentences to run unbroken by punctuation other than commas and full stops. This inevitably makes it hard for the reader to grasp who is speaking at any one time, particularly as this is rarely made clear. He does not use capital letters for proper nouns. I was unable to grasp the point of his anti-grammar stance. This is not a revolutionary story, and is not a stream of consciousness. The upshot is that it is extremely easy to lose the thread of the story. Abandoning the rules of grammar in this book is, for me, not an anarchic, exciting revelation, but an extreme irritant. It made this reader, for one, appreciate how vital grammar is to readable literature.

I understand that Saramago often employs this technique and I readily admit that it would strongly put me off reading his fiction in the future. This is a shame, as in 'The Elephant's Journey' Saramago tells a whimsical and attractive story with a serious thread running through it that does not warrant this stylistic choice.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Small Memories by Jose Saramago, Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi and The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts. You might also enjoy The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg.

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