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José Saramago: A Viagem do Elefante (The Elephant’s Journey)

Saramago’s penultimate novel is not one of his best. It is based on an historical incident, involving Joâo III of Portugal and his cousin, Emperor Maximilian II. Joâo is looking to give Maximilian a present. At the suggestion of his wife, Catherine, he decides to give Maximilian an elephant, which he has had now for a couple of years. He goes to inspect the elephant and finds it and its mahout to be dirty. He orders them both to be cleaned. Maximilian is very happy to accept the elephant as a present and arrangements are made to take the elephant to Valladolid, where Maximilian is staying. Subhro, the mahout, and Solomon, the elephant, are smartened up and the pair set off, accompanied by an army troop and, initially, by the King as well. The novel is the story of their travels.

Subhro is very protective of the elephant but, after an initial problem, caused by the needs of the elephant (a long afternoon nap and lots of food and water), he has a good rapport with the army commanding officer. Till they reach the Portugal-Spain border, where they will meet the Austrian troop come to accompany the elephant to Valladolid, the journey is relatively smooth, except for the inconvenience of Solomon’s afternoon nap and his need for a lot of food and water. Naturally enough the people they pass on the journey are curious as none of them has seen an elephant before and Subhro and Solomon attract a lot of curious admirers. As this is Saramago, there are a few things we can expect. Firstly, it is told in his usual laconic, matter-of-fact style. Secondly, he is going to mock religion. We have the story of the priest. A man in a village heard Subhro talking about Ganesh, the elephant god, and was afraid that this meant that Solomon was a god. He and his friends decided to take the matter up with the priest who was not happy at being woken in the middle of the night to deal with this matter but agreed to exorcise the elephant the next day. However, being lazy, he used ordinary water instead of holy water and received a kick from Solomon for his pains, which convinced him that the elephant, while not necessarily a god, had some intelligence as regards the ability to detect holy water. We will also see an attack on the priests later, with a greedy priest shown up.

It is not just religion that Saramago attacks but, as usual, he mocks authority. The King and Emperor as well as the various military officials get the mild trademark mocking that we have seen in his other works. The main issue is the meeting at the border. The commanding officer of the Portuguese forces has been given clear instructions that he must accompany the elephant to Valladolid while the Austrian commanding officer has been given instructions that his forces alone will accompany the elephant. There is, of course, a stand-off and political diplomacy and military tactics are mocked. Once the elephant has reached Valladolid, it is on to Vienna for Solomon and Subhro (now renamed Suleiman and Fritz respectively by Maximilian) and the crossing of the Alps is the ultimate test.

There is no question that Saramago has a soft spot for Solomon and for Subhro who are, more or less, the heroes of this tale. But this soft spot for the elephant and his mahout takes away from his normal clever mocking of authority and religion and the illogicality that officialdom shows in the face of adversity. As a result the book lacks that edge that we expect from Saramago. However, as a penultimate farewell it certainly does have charm.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 2010 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa