The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that Solomon, an elephant who has been living in Lisbon for the last two years after being brought from the Portuguese colonies in India, would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna.

This is one of these books that is full of delightful prose and a pleasure to read, but ultimately is so light that its effect dissipates almost instantly. Saramago uses Solomon’s journey to digress on all kinds of things, all in a tone of gentle mockery. The power of kings, the superstition of the common people, the religious changes that were taking place at the time, the untold stories beneath the bare facts in the historical records, the writer’s right to create rather than to simply record – all these are raised but in such a way as to leave them feeling like airy wisps of passing thought, not to be taken too seriously.

We hereby recognise that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have had 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, if such solemn concepts are not out of place in a discourse such as this, and often to no one’s advantage either. It is in this and other ways, almost without our realising it, that we make so many enemies in life.

So, not taking it too seriously then, it has to be seen as a whimsical fable and, as such, it works reasonably well. There are amusing episodes, like when Solomon is trained to perform a “miracle” at the behest of the local churchmen. There are mildly moving scenes, such as when Solomon says farewell to the soldiers who have accompanied him on the Portuguese leg of his journey. There are pointed (and sometimes rather snide) moments of social commentary: for example, when Archduke Maximilian promptly changes Solomon’s name to Suleiman as more appropriate to his new home.

But the story is too flimsy to bear even the light weight of Saramago’s musings, however entertainingly presented. Perhaps the fact that nothing much happens is part of the point, but for this reader it made for a rather wasted journey. I also found tedious, as I always do, the author’s attempt to jazz the thing up by the use of stylistic quirks – in this case, endless paragraphs, lack of capital letters for names and no quotation marks. However, he does it well, so for people who like that kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing they’ll like.

Knowing as one does the preeminent virtues of bodily cleanliness, it was no surprise to find that in the place where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendour. A somewhat relative splendour, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a greyish coffee colour and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu. He surrendered himself to being washed as if he were expecting a miracle, a baptism, but the result was there for all to see, hairs and freckles.

Overall then, I was amused but only fleetingly engaged either emotionally or intellectually. I understand this was one of Saramago’s last books and certainly the quality of the prose would tempt me to read some of his earlier works, in the hope that they may have more depth and fewer stylistic quirks.

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42 thoughts on “The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

  1. Hmm… Sounds a bit like candy floss, FictionFan. Pleasant enough, and even quite good at times, but not particularly substantive. Maybe that’s just me. I like the idea of exploring different places, and there’s something to be said for light social commentary. But I can see how this was ultimately not as satisfying as you’d have hoped. I am glad you found some things to like about it, though.

    • That’s a perfect description for it, Margot. (Now I really want some candy floss! 😉 ) Yes, I found it perfectly readable and even enjoyable, but it didn’t really have much to say about anything. I think I’m not the right audience for this kind of whimsy, even when it’s well written as this was. I like a bit more substance, or some drama, or something…

  2. There’s some Saramago sitting on my shelf that my godson sent me as a birthday present. (I love the fact that strapped for cash as he always is he sends me second hand books as presents. He knows it is the story that counts, not the packaging.) Anyway, I must get it down and see if it has any more weight than this.

    • (That’s a lovely idea for a gift when money is tight – thoughtful!) I would like to try one of his earlier books – I liked the writing and the mild humour, but there just wasn’t enough substance in this to make me feel really involved in it. If you do read him, I’ll be interested to hear what you make of him.

  3. Not my cup of tea, but I’m glad you found parts of it enjoyable. By the way, the elephant doesn’t die, does he (because then that would certainly be a deal-breaker!)

    • Solomon survived the journey and there were no cruel bits, so fine on that score, although the book tells us he only lived for another couple of years after the journey – I got the impression he died of natural causes. It was enjoyable enough, but no real substance to it.

  4. I never knew Saramago wrote anything so light and airy and tongue-in-cheek. I have read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and All the Names, both of which are anything but light. In fact, they require quite a bit more of the reader than is average even with great literature–they’re tough to read–but I found both of them worthy. I have a brother who’s quite a bit smarter than I am, and fluent in Latin American literature and Spanish (though I don’t think Portuguese), and Saramago is in his eyes a master. I could see why when I read those two.

    • Hallo, Matt! Nice to hear from you! That’s interesting – I don’t know anything about him and just stumbled across this because I was looking for a book about elephant travel as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I thought his prose was great, though, and even in this one you get a sense of his intelligence, so I’m glad to hear his earlier books have more weight – I’m never very appreciative of whimsy, however well done. I shall start investigating blurbs…

    • I have to admit to being completely unaware of him till I came across this one while looking for a book on elephant travel to fill one of the slots on my Around the World challenge. Certainly his prose is great in this one, so I’d be interested in reading something by him when he’s in less whimsical mode. Though I’m not too good at harrowing either… 😉

  5. So this is a fictionalized account of a real elephant? I’m afraid some of those quirks you spoke of would turn me off. In a way, this reminds me of a book I read years ago called Zarafa (about a giraffe), though I don’t remember it being particularly light.

    • Yes, apparently the story is true, although he’s quite open about the fact that so little is known about the journey he made up most of it. I haven’t heard of Zarafa – I’m quite wary of stories about animals, generally, since I get upset if anything bad happens to them. I’m fine with people being murdered though! Fictionally, of course… 😉

      • Always makes me feel better to hear someone else say that about murdering people as opposed to animals. 😬

        I put off reading the Herriot books for years, fearing they would upset me, but finally did and absolutely loved them.

        • I haven’t read the Herriot books but loved the old TV series. Although animals died from time to time in it, generally speaking it wasn’t from cruelty. I think it’s when an author is cruel to an animal for effect that it upsets me – it’s such a cheap way to provoke emotion…

  6. I’d like to read this as I enjoyed All the Names. This does sound very different though, both in tone and stylistic quirks. At least he wasn’t an author who kept doing the same thing!

    • I don’t know why I haven’t come across Saramago before, but I get the impression from what other people have been saying that this one is uncharacteristically light. Still enjoyable though, and definitely enough to encourage me to read more of his earlier stuff…

  7. Oh gawd, why does ignoring proper grammar and spelling interest writers so much? It’s so darn annoying for us readers. Good for you FF for turning a blind eye to that annoying ‘fad’.

  8. Ah, yes, I’m also not a huge fan of those types of stylistic quirks. I’ve been meaning to read Blindness by this author as the concept seems quite interesting but if it’s written in the same style then I’m not sure if it will be something I enjoy. There definitely seems to be an increase in the lack of capitalisation and quotation marks in the literary world!

    • A couple of commenters have read Blindness and are recommending it, though I think one of them said it did have some stylistic quirks too. He does it very well, though, which meant I could put up with it, but I do wish authors would just stick to the traditional forms of writing!

  9. The lightness of this story wouldn’t engage me deeply either. I read Saramago’s Blindness some years ago. From memory, this also has similar stylistic writing features, but the story is much more intense and darker. It starts with the premise that a city is faced with an epidemic which cause its citizens to become instantly blind, and explores the resulting social chaos. It was a very thought provoking read.

    • That sounds much more my style, though rather reminiscent of the premise of The Day of the Triffids. He was good enough at the stylistic stuff that it didn’t drive me screaming away as that kind of thing sometimes does, and you did get a sense of his intelligence from this. I’m looking forward to reading some of his earlier, weightier stuff…

  10. I’ve only read ‘Blindness’ by Saramago – it felt at the time like the epitome of weighty literature (and not in a good way). Every now and then I’ve thought I should give him another go, but it sounds like Saramago doing light isn’t that much more fun…

    • Oh, dear, it does sound like hard work! I had a little look at blurbs and reviews last night, and think I might actually try a different one first – some of them seem a bit less… dense? Bleak? This one was fine, but I never really find whimsy satisfying. The prose was lovely though, and there’s quite a lot of gentle humour in it.

    • Thanks for the recommendation! I certainly hope to read more of him over the next few years – this one didn’t have a lot of depth, but it let me see his talent with prose.

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