The Elephant’s Journey
Jose Saramago’s writing style (without regard for much capitalization and punctuation) is unique and takes some getting used-to. Once you have read a few pages though, you will be whisked into his world which is irreverent, cynical, satirical and poignant, all at the same time. He wrote in Portuguese and had powerhouse translators’ gift us his magic in English. He was a communist, wrote many memorable books, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, and died in 2010. His best book by popular consensus is Blindness, but The Elephant’s Journey continues to be a favourite with readers around the world.
The story is based on historical fact but the narrative is fictional. In 1551, King João III of Portugal gifted an elephant to his cousin, Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The elephant (Solomon) and his mahout (named Subhro) had to make the long journey from Lisbon to Vienna via Valladolid (Spain), then to Genoa by ship, and then across the Alps from Venice to Innsbruck, and then again by river to Vienna. In those times, the people of these parts had not seen an elephant, and as the story unfolds and the journey progresses, we are introduced to various characters who are both intimidated and awestruck by the elephant.
We are introduced to villagers, priests, militiamen (cuirassiers) in different topographies including the swirling mists and snows of the Alps. Solomon is made to participate in a fake miracle at Padua; and then actually performs a real miracle by not trampling a baby in Vienna.
Subhro (I see a Bengali reference here) the mahout, is entertaining, resourceful, and aware of his sudden importance in this mission. Even though he is dedicated to Solomon, he too is an opportunist and makes some money off simple-minded miracle-seekers. Subhro says that he is a Christian but he talks about Ganesh and displays a fair knowledge of Hinduism. These are digs at religion, especially Christianity, which is a Saramago favourite, and both village folk and priests are shown in unexposed light.
Saramago himself is present throughout the journey as the ubiquitous narrator, with reflective statements, understated comments and cynical observations to liven the proceedings. Even while being scornful or ungracious, he maintains a light-heartedness to his storytelling which gives the story an extra dose of simplicity, warmth and memorability.
If you have not read Saramago, or this 200-page literary gem, give it a shot: it will warm the cockles of your heart.