By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
"The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a road, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it's not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear, and that elephant might carry on its shoulders a mahout named subhro, meaning white, an entirely inappropriate word to describe the man who, in sight of the king of portugal and his secretary of state, appeared in the enclosure in belém looking every bit as filthy as the elephant he was supposed to be taking care of."
José Saramago happened to be alive just long enough to discover this elephant, as well as his handler (or mahout), whose name happened to be Subhro. He was also alive just long enough to hear the story about how the elephant, whose name was Solomon, was given to the Archduke Maximilian as a wedding gift from King Joao III of Portugal in 1551.
Luckily for us, Saramago was so tickled by the tale that he decided to write a novel about the journey that the elephant and Subhro made from Belém, a parish in Lisbon, to Vienna, the home of the Archduke. The trek sees the elephant and his mahout cross the Iberian Peninsula, sail to Italy, and then scale the Alps with a few stops in some of the great cities of the Late Renaissance along the way. Published in Portuguese as A Viagem do Elefante in 2008, and translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published two years later as The Elephant's Journey, it was the second to last book that the Nobel winner finished prior to his death in 2010.
Those who casually gloss over the past probably would find the work of José Saramago to be a tedious exercise in the study of minutia made all the more annoying because of his style. Capitalization, quotation marks and other, seemingly necessary elements of punctuation are absent. The dialogue is sometimes more like the banter of a Marx Brothers film than the type of high-minded discourse one would expect from a book of serious literature. The pacing of the plot is frequently interrupted because the narrator wanders off on tangents and must, every so often, literally catch up to the procession of porters, soldiers and officers escorting the elephant through Portugal or Spain or Italy.
Saramago is a writer for those who would sacrifice twists and turns of plot for the type of flowing rhythm that would make Faulkner jealous. While it is not as groundbreaking as his 1991 novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, as epic as Blindness, or as witty as what may arguably be my favorite of his works, Death With Interruptions, this novel is perhaps one of his better showings because it is so short. The Elephant's Journey is like a Russian imperial stout in that regard. It belongs in an eight-ounce snifter.
The novel also reveals some of the aspects that have made Saramago one of my favorite writers. He is knowledgeable without being pedantic; he is exceptionally clever and never takes great pains to set up elaborate jokes; and he knows how to set a pace. He is the type of humorist who doesn't need punch lines so much as he needs a few idiots talking in circles, as demonstrated by Subhro's run-in with a priest and his ecclesiastical team while in Padua. The priest asked if Subhro could get the elephant—now named Suleiman instead of Solomon because the Archduke had decreed it to be so—to perform a miracle by kneeling before the Basilica of Saint Anthony. "…Is there any hope of success, [some members of the ecclesiastical team] asked, Very much so, even though we are in the hands of an elephant, Elephants don't have hands, That was a manner of speaking, like saying, for example, that we're in the hands of god…"
And yet there's another humor hiding beneath these kinds of idiotic interactions. It's the same kind of smartass' smirk that you'll find in the pages of Pynchon, Borges and Balzac. Saramago's work reminds you not only to laugh at life every once in a while, but that it's usually the least stupid thing that you can do.