This may just be the shortest review I ever write. The book is The Elephant’s Journey by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago (translated from Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa). There’s very little to describe in terms of plot. It’s 1551. The King of Portugal sends his cousin, the Archduke Maximilian, an elephant named Solomon as a wedding gift. With the elephant goes his Indian mahout, a man sometimes called Subhro and sometimes called Fritz. They travel from Portugal to Vienna – approximately 3,324 kilometers or 2,065 miles. They have many adventures, and Solomon captures the hearts and imaginations of everyone he meets.
Whatever the steward may have been thinking, mounted on his mule, he kept crossing himself and then crossing himself again, scarcely able to believe what his eyes were seeing. An elephant, so that’s an elephant, he murmured, why, he must be at least four ells high, and then there’s the trunk and the tusks and the feet, look how big those feet are. When the convoy set off, he followed it as far as the road. He bade farewell to the commanding officer, to whom he wished a good journey and an even better return, and waved furiously as he watched them move off. Well, it isn’t every day that an elephant appears in our lives.
Saramago surrounds Solomon with a troupe of characters – kings, queens, generals, priests, stewards, soldiers and commoners. The elephant does nothing more than, well, be an elephant. It is the men he travels with who provide all the entertainment. They precipitate and perform in one ridiculous scenario after another. Their conversations have the rhythm of a vaudeville act (think Abbot & Costello’s famous skit Who’s on First Base), the participants usually talking at cross purposes. This book is, above all, a satire. But Jose Saramago writes the kind of satire that exposes human folly cheerfully and indulgently. The narrator’s tone is playful. The prose is a cross between Jane Austin (a bright smile behind her bite) & Ismail Kadare (attention to the smallest details).
If I had a rating system, I’d give The Elephant’s Journey 5 stars. Maybe 6. I keep picking it up to re-read random passages simply because I love the way Saramago writes. He puts us in the bubble of Solomon’s world and then moves it across Europe. And while we never, thankfully, are given events from the elephant’s perspective – you close the book feeling you’ve come to know him all the same.
I traced Solomon’s route as best I could using Google Maps.
Publisher: Mariner Books, New York (2011)
ISBN: 978 0 547 57411 0