09 April, 2015

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago [Claire G, Grey Lynn]

I picked up The Elephant’s Journey because it looked like a pleasant diversion for someone I knew: well written (surely! Its author had won the Nobel Prize for Literature) but light and not too long. The subject – a gift that the King of Portugal bestowed on Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1551 – appeared safe and unlikely to increase stress levels, a consideration for the person I had in mind.

I’m glad I read it before passing it on, as otherwise I’d have missed a little beauty. The king’s gift is an elephant called Solomon and his keeper, Subhro. A
s they make their way from Lisbon to Vienna by road and boat, a delightful tale emerges.

One newspaper reviewer, whose own novel was about another large land mammal from hot places, seemed disappointed that Saramago’s book (a) deviated from the True Story of this particular elephant and (b) failed to offer significant insights into the nature and behaviour of the species in general. I thought he rather missed the point. 


In The Elephant’s Journey, moments that in another writer’s hands might be saccharine are instead very funny, thanks to the narrator’s sly and wry commentary. There’s a sense that what we’re reading is a timeless reflection on life, without self-importance or too much earnestness. 

The style of the writing, which is translated from Portuguese, is intriguing. Sentences are long with multiple clauses that are divided by commas, and the paragraphs are also long. There are no capital letters for proper nouns. These features seem in keeping with the slow, meandering progress of the elephant and his entourage, and with the egalitarian sympathies of the narrator, but I’ve read that they are typical of Saramago.

Don’t worry that the novel itself is ponderous; it isn’t. If you’re like me you’ll read it quickly, laugh a little and feel unexpectedly enriched.

Title: The Elephant’s Journey (also available as an ebook)
Author: José Saramago

Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
Published: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston
Date: 2010
ISBN: 9780547352589




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