The Elephant’s Journey, by José Saramago
After reading Saramago’s book, Blindness (it was made into a movie – miracle of miracles), I resolved to try this Portuguese writer on again at the first opportunity. I’d intended to read Seeing, which may have been a sequel, but never got to it. So when The Elephant’s Journey found print this year, I dropped what I was doing it and made my order.
I’m not disappointed (well, maybe just a twinge). Blindness was what I tend to call an archetypal novel, as I mention in the above linked post, 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 – an 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 of that era. 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 wry 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.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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