Book Review: The Elephant's Journey

By Gordon McLauchlan

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The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago
Harvill Secker, $39

The Elephant's Journey. Photo / Supplied
The Elephant's Journey. Photo / Supplied

Alas, this this is the second-to-last novel from the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner from whom I have gained so much enjoyment and stimulus over the past few years. Saramago died in June aged 87, leaving only one novel, Cain, written last year, ready for his trusted and gifted English translator, Margaret Jull Costa. We will no doubt get to read it next year and, judging by the name, it will be as challenging and provocative as most of his work.

The best way to read Saramago is to pretend he is a monologist, telling the story of a group of people, taking all the parts as he goes. His sentences are long, with commas, where others would use full stops, and there are no quotes, just capital letters after a comma to indicate someone is talking. But once you get into the swing of it the narrative flows along rapidly.

Saramago was an outspoken atheist and communist, personally inclined to irascibility, in public anyway. His fiction usually has a serious social intent. An earlier novel, The Gospel According To Jesus Christ, was banned in his homeland as disrespectful to the church, so he moved to Spain's Canary Islands.

But The Elephant's Journey is a droll account of an historic journey in 1551, when an Indian elephant travelled halfway across Europe to the astonishment of the people who had never seen such a beast before. The facts, however, are very much blurred and enlivened by Saramago.

As he tells it, the Portuguese king and his wife decide to give an elephant from the Portuguese colony of Goa, resident in Lisbon, as a wedding present to a Habsburg Archduke, Maximilian, which means the elephant with an entourage of soldiers, bullock wagons (for food) - and for some of the way accompanied by Maximilian and his Archduchess - travels on foot from Lisbon to Vienna.

Solomon, the animal, is accompanied by his Indian mahout, Subhro. Both are arbitrarily renamed Suleiman and Fritz by the bossy and egotistical Archduke.

Everyone with power - commanders of troops, priests and royals - are subtly satirised. Only the elephant and his mahout seem genuinely who they are.

Now and then the author amusingly digresses to talk directly to the reader: "We hereby recognise that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have cause to speak of Austria and its people was not only aggressive but patently unfair. Not that this was our intention, but you know how it is with writing, one word often brings along another in its train simply because they sound good together, even if this means sacrificing respect for levity and ethics for aesthetics" and so on.

He uses the term "pigeon-fanciers", adding that it was "a term that did not exist at the time, except perhaps among initiates, but which was doubtless going around knocking at doors, with the absent-minded air affected by all new words, asking to be let in."

It really is good fun.

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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