José Saramago, The Elephant’s Journey

An air of mysticism surrounds the English-language publication of The Elephant’s Journey, a 2008 novel by the late Portuguese writer José Saramago. It is the first book of the Nobel Laureate’s to be released here since his death in July, and the feeling is unsettling because, thanks to the lag time in translation, it seems as though Saramago’s books are now being written of their own accord. Until the supply of new material runs out—there’s still at least one other completed novel, Cain, yet to emerge from the pipeline—he might as well still be with us.

The Elephant’s Journey adds another uncanny layer to the experience with its dedication. Before writing this book, Saramago was suddenly hospitalized with the same organ failure that would eventually prove fatal. He dedicates the novel to his wife, Pilar, “who wouldn’t let me die.”

Saramago himself remained secular to the end (socialist, too), and this novel shares the spirit of his earlier works. He’s still fascinated by the gaps in myth and history, but his subject this time is not a towering figure like Jesus Christ, or even the renowned poet Fernando Pessoa. It’s an unassuming Indian elephant named Solomon.

The year is 1551, and King João III is looking for the perfect present for his cousin, the archduke of Austria. His wife suggests they re-gift their elephant, who was initially celebrated in their kingdom but quickly forgotten, and after a visit to see Solomon in person, João agrees. The archduke will never forget such a towering and, frankly, unusual present.

The only catch? Vienna is 3,500 kilometres from Lisbon, and the elephant has to get there on foot. Then again, you try telling a king he can’t do something. João throws together a caravan of soldiers and supplies, and then merrily sends Solomon and his keeper, a man named Subhro, on their way.

Because the story is real, or at least heavily based on true events, many of the basic details—will they get hijacked by ivory thieves? Can an elephant even survive a trip through the Alps?—are foregone conclusions. What’s left is the journey itself, and the people making it. Both are surprisingly underdeveloped. As the personnel in the caravan keeps changing over the course of the trip, it’s hard to latch onto any single personality; only Subhro and Solomon himself leave a lasting impression. The terrain, too, while varied, is only ever lightly sketched.

Much of Saramago’s world-class reputation comes from his style, and this remains as vibrant as ever. His sentences are long, winding, and sparsely punctuated, not to mention elegant and nimble. As a group of Portuguese workers heads back home, for instance, Saramago stops to reflect on life and death: “the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting… they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.” The key is that “opens onto the garden,” which in just four words takes a tired image and manages to make it brand new again. Beautiful stuff.

Underneath the ornate sentences, however, there’s not much going on. This isn’t a fable, a historical upending, or even a travelogue. Saramago does tentatively explore other ideas, most notably the tendency of those in power to ignore the consequences of their various demands and whims. King João’s decision to send an elephant to Austria obviously fits this category, as does the archduke’s sudden renaming of Subhro and Solomon (to Fritz and Suleiman, respectively) once he decides the old ones are too hard for him to pronounce. These gestures are brief, though, and feel more like related anecdotes than any kind of sustained argument.

Every Saramago book is cause for celebration, and if you’ve never read him before, this is hardly a bad entry point—for that first experience you can survive on style alone. But The Elephant’s Journey is a foothill among mountains. While not without its own small pleasures, it’s bound to disappoint anyone who’s already seen the view from higher up.

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pp, $29.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared, in a slightly different format, in The Edmonton Journal, October 17, 2010)

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