Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: The Elephant's Journey

Author: Jose Saramago
Publisher/Format: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010), Hardcover, 224 pages
Characters: Solomon the elephant, Subrho the mahout
Subject: Solomon's trek from Lisbon to Vienna
Genre: historical fiction
Source: public library

This is Saramago's last work, and I think his masterpiece. He learned of the true story behind this book while guest lecturing in Austria where he saw a series of illustrations depicting the tale.

In 1551 King Joao III decided to give archduke Maximillian of Austria a wedding present.  He sent his Indian elephant named Solomon as the gift.  Entrusting the safekeeping of this gentle giant to his handler, a mahout named Subrho, they set out with an entourage of soldiers, porters, and supply wagons (the elephant required 2-4 tons of forage a day!) to move from Lisbon overland to meet the archduke in Spain, and then via ship to Genoa, and overland through northern Italy, through the alps--including the dangerous Isarco and Benner passes in the winter, up the Inn River and finally to their triumphant entry into Vienna.  Ok...that's the geography of the journey.

The real beauty of the story rests however in the personal relationships that develop along the way.  Solomon shows himself to be a charming, intelligent and gentle beast.  He is able to woo those who fear his girth, and protect his friend Subrho (renamed Fritz by the archduke who found his name too hard to pronounce) from the vagaries and intrigues of the military, the royals, and the church.  Each of these groups wanted to use the elephant and the journey to their own gain.  The simple peasant handler and the elephant showed grace under pressure and hardship, winning over all who met them.

Saramago's third person narrator is delightful.  He is able to insert 20th century asides with great humor, and poke fun at politicians, uneducated soldiers, clergy, and the monarchy without ever stepping out of character and without becoming political or critical himself.  It is written in Saramago's normal style:  long, long, long paragraphs, little or no punctuation or capitalization or quotation marks.  It takes only a few pages however, to acclimate to the pace, and the lack of visual stops actually holds the reader's attention and increases the pace of reading.  It is a short, well-paced, lustrous tale of love, friendship, forgiveness and intrigue.  A masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds good Tina. I guess this was his last book prior to his death??


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