The Elephants Journey [Jose Saramago]

“No, I will not excuse you, I need your presence in the enclosure, But why, sir, if I  may be so bold as to ask, Because I lack the intelligence to know if what you termed a poetic act will take place or not, replied the king with a half-smile that gave his beard and moustache a mischievous, almost mesphistophelian look”

And so, hopeful that a poetic act would take place, Dom Joao III visits Soloman the elephant and his keeper Subhro before sending him on a Journey to Vienna, as a wedding gift to the Hapsburg Archduke, Maximilian.

Subhro the keeper takes the news stoically, wondering if the Archduke will already have a mahout, while on one knows what Soloman thinks, he is even more quiet than his reserved keeper.

The Elephants Journey is an obscure tale, narrated in delightful fashion as usual by Jose Saramago

“He went plof and vanished.  Onomatopoeia can be so very handy.   Imagine if we’d had to provide a detailed description of someone disappearing.  It would have taken us at least ten pages. Plof.”

As Elephant and Mahout travel to the Spanish border and war is almost started as the Portuguese and Austrian soldiers rigidly stick to Protocol and jostle for the upper hand.   On route the church prowls around the elephant requesting miracles, the calvalry face the problem of the speed of the oxen while at the same time discussing how much of a Christian Subhro is (more or less) and what to do about the wolves in the distance

“It was true.  The wolves, who, from the moment they arrived, had been sitting utterly motionless, silhouetted against the back drop of clouds, were now moving off, as if gliding rather than walking, until they disappeared, one by one”

As with all Saramago’s books the charm of the narration beguiles me in equal measure as the story itself.  Even though I often have to read the same conversation three or four times, it is always with a wry smile, sometimes it is the humour, at other times the sheer pleasure of the words on the page.   The Anecdotes and insights are a light touch on the characters and situations in the story itself, and I’m always fascinated that the narrator can at one point tell us what any particular character is thinking, bar the elephant, they will then admit that they don’t know what is said in a conversation because they don’t know the language.

“The audience applauded, thinking that, all things considered, the galician cow deserved the truth as much as she deserved the medal”

I didn’t start reading this until I had left Lisbon, as I would have tried to find the elephant house in Belem, but the sloping streets of Porto looking out onto the Rio Douro  were no less a fitting backdrop for me to one of Saramago’s lightest and enjoyable tales.


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