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.

Amazon UK Link
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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The elephant’s pleasure was plain to see. The water and the scrubbing motion of the broom must have awoken in him some pleasant memory, a river in india, the rough trunk of a tree, and the proof was that for as long as the washing lasted, a good half hour, he did not move from the spot, standing firm on his powerful legs, as if he were hypnotised. 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.

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Despite the brutality of the crimes, many whites did not mask their enthusiasm for the lurid story. OSAGE INDIAN KILLING CONSPIRACY THRILLS, declared the Reno Evening Gazette. Under the headline OLD WILD WEST STILL LIVES IN LAND OF OSAGE MURDERS, a wire service sent out a nationwide bulletin that the story, “however depressing, is nevertheless blown through with a breath of the romantic, devil-may-care frontier west that we thought was gone. And it is an amazing story, too. So amazing that at first you wonder if it can possibly have happened in modern, twentieth-century America.” A newsreel about the murders, titled “The Tragedy of the Osage Hills,” was shown at cinemas. “The true history of the most baffling series of murders in the annals of crime,” a handbill for the show said. “A Story of Love, Hatred and Man’s Greed for Gold. Based on the real facts as divulged by the startling confession of [Individual 1].”

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….The pottingar delivered his opinion in a most insinuating manner; but he seemed to shrink into something less than his natural tenuity when he saw the blood rise in the old cheek of Simon Glover, and inflame to the temples the complexion of the redoubted smith.
….The last, stepping forward, and turning a stern look on the alarmed pottingar, broke out as follows: “Thou walking skeleton! thou asthmatic gallipot! thou poisoner by profession! if I thought that the puff of vile breath thou hast left could blight for the tenth part of a minute the fair fame of Catharine Glover, I would pound thee, quacksalver! in thine own mortar, and beat up thy wretched carrion with flower of brimstone, the only real medicine in thy booth, to make a salve to rub mangy hounds with!”

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But one distinguishing characteristic of this great author’s mind and feelings deserves, even in the shortest allusion to his memory, to be mentioned as giving colour to all his works – we mean his love of country – his devoted attachment to the land of his birth, and the scenes of his youth – his warm sympathy in every thing that interested his nation, and the unceasing application of his industry and imagination to illustrate its history or to celebrate its exploits. From the Lay of the Last Minstrel, or the border ballads, to the last lines which he wrote, he showed a complete and entire devotion to his country. His works, both of poetry and prose, are impregnated with this feeling, and are marked by the celebration of successive portions of its wild scenery, or of separate pieces of its romantic annals. Hence his friends could often trace his residence, or the course of his reading, for periods anterior to the publication of his most popular works, in the pages of his glowing narrative or graphic description. Hence the Lady of the Lake sent crowds of visitors to the mountains of Scotland, who would never have thought of such a pilgrimage unless led by the desire to compare the scenery with the poem.

from the obituary of Sir Walter Scott

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….Like so many mornings after a torrential rainstorm, the day broke awash with brilliant sunshine and fresh air. Though the sun had warmed the tin room to the point where I’d grown hot in my sleeping bag, the wretched position in which I’d finally fallen asleep had morphed into borderline uncomfortable.
….I gazed at the cot above me expecting to see the impression of Pia still sleeping there, but it was flat. To my left, Rachel’s bed was empty too, her bedroll neatly tied. I was relieved to see Sandra still bundled in her red sleeping bag, head tucked down. Like Pia, she was a natural-born sleeper.
….Led by aromas of French toast and coffee, I climbed up the hill across grass flattened by the night’s downpour. In the distance, our destination: smoke-blue mountains obscured and then revealed by morning fog. I felt equally pulled and repelled. What did the mountains care about our plan to climb them, rafting the waters that divided them? They had eternity before us, and eternity after us. We were nothing to them.

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 189…

Episode 189

Happily a couple of excellent reads seem to have broken my slump and got me back into the reading groove. Tragically the same seems to apply to my book acquisition groove! The TBR is up just 2 to 228, but I have a horrible feeling the postman might be about to knock at the door at any moment…

Here are a few more that should reach the launch pad soon…

True Crime

This one appealed to me when it came out a couple of years ago and I’m only now managing to fit it in. Since then I’ve seen a few reviews of it – all positive, so my hopes are high…

The Blurb says: In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And this was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.

As the death toll climbed, the FBI took up the case. It was one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations and the bureau badly bungled it. In desperation, its young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. Together with the Osage he and his undercover team began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.

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Fiction

One of the more difficult to fill categories on the Main Journey of my Around the World challenge is “elephant travel”. The elephant in this book is admittedly travelling on the wrong continent, but I still think I deserve points for initiative! It sounds deliciously quirky and better be good, because I really doubt I’ll be able to find another one…

The Blurb says: A delightful, witty tale of friendship and adventure from prize-winning novelist José Saramago.

In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. In José Saramago’s remarkable and imaginative retelling, Solomon and his keeper, Subhro, begin in dismal conditions, forgotten in a corner of the palace grounds. When it occurs to the king and queen that an elephant would be an appropriate wedding gift, everyone rushes to get them ready: Subhro is given two new suits of clothes and Solomon a long overdue scrub. Accompanied by the Archduke, his new wife, and the royal guard, these unlikely heroes traverse a continent riven by the Reformation and civil wars, witnessed along the way by scholars, historians, and wide-eyed ordinary people as they make their way through the storied cities of northern Italy; they brave the Alps and the terrifying Isarco and Brenner Passes; across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Inn River; and at last, toward their grand entry into the imperial city.

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Scottish Classics

One from the Scottish section on my Classics Club list – The Fair Maid of Perth. This will be a re-read but from so long ago that I remember almost nothing about it except a general feeling of having loved it. All the blurbs on Goodreads and Amazon are dreadful for some reason, with many of them kindly telling how the story ends, so beware! (I reckon that should be a hanging offence.) This is the best I could find, but it fails to mention the central romance…

The Blurb says: The Fair Maid of Perth centres on the merchant classes of Perth in the fourteenth century, and their commitment to the pacific values of trade, in a bloody and brutal era in which no right to life is recognised, and in which the Scottish nobles fight for control of the weak Scottish monarchy, and clans are prepared to extinguish each other to gain supremacy in the central Highlands. It is a remarkable novel, in part because late in his career Scott has a new subject, and in part because he employs a spare narrative style that is without parallel in the rest of his oeuvre. Far too many critics, from his son-in-law J.G. Lockhart to the present day, have written off late Scott, and seen his last works as evidence of failing powers. The readers of this edition (which is not my edition) of The Fair Maid of Perth will see that these critics are mistaken, for in it we witness a luminous creative intelligence working at high pressure to produce a tightly organised and deeply moving novel.

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Thriller

I’m ashamed to admit I won this in a giveaway in February 2017 and this is me just getting around to reading it – this being one of the reasons I don’t often enter giveaways! It sounded good then and it still sounds good now…

The Blurb says: A heart-stopping, page-turning thriller that sees a trip of a lifetime – white-water rafting in the remote US wilderness – turn into a battle for survival for four best friends.

Win Allen doesn’t want an adventure. After a miserable divorce and the death of her beloved brother, she just wants to spend some time with her three best friends away from her soul-crushing job. But athletic, energetic Pia has other plans. Plans for an adrenaline-raising, breath-taking, white-water rafting trip in the Maine wilderness. Five thousand square miles of remote countryside. Just mountains, rivers and fresh air. No phone coverage. No people. No help.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?