Friday, September 10, 2010

José Saramago: The Elephant’s Journey

Richard Eder reviews José Saramago's The Elephant’s Journey.
José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and Nobelist, has ended his journey with another one: a 16th-century trudge from Lisbon to Vienna by an elephant named Solomon, a present from the Portuguese King João III to Archduke Maximilian, heir to the Holy Roman Empire. “The Elephant’s Journey,” written not long before Saramago’s death in June, displays his unique mix of absurdity, sudden logic, comedy shading to melancholy, and digression that tunnels up into unexpected purpose.
Guided by Subhro, Solomon’s discursive Indian mahout, and escorted by a detachment of Portuguese soldiers, the elephant, who is allowed an occasional discursiveness of his own, travels north to Castelo Rodrigo, crosses into Spain, and makes his way to Valladolid, where he is turned over to Maximilian. The procession, lavishly swollen by Austrian courtiers and troops, continues by sea to Genoa, crosses the Alps over the icy Brenner Pass, and is triumphantly welcomed to Vienna.

The journey is based on a historical event; and perhaps Saramago has forfeited a little of his power by it: His greatest novels invent their own history. “Blindness” is an astonishing parable of what happens when suddenly nobody can see; in “The Stone Raft,” Spain and Portugal break off from Europe and go floating away; in “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” a proofreader’s mischievous insertion of “not” drastically alters three centuries of Portuguese life. In “Elephant,” the extraordinary story is very roughly tied to the real; that is, it lacks some of the unhampered detonations of Saramago’s magical realism. Nonetheless it is for the most part a delight.
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