Saturday, September 18, 2010

José Saramago: The Elephant’s Journey

J. M. Ledgard reviews José Saramago's The Elephant's Journey.
The Portuguese writer José Saramago died in June at the age of 87. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, having peaked as a writer later in life. His prose is impish and subtle enough to bear comparison with Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, even if he lacked their scope. Saramago was a Communist. He believed there was a new totalitarianism of multinational companies. “To be a Portuguese Stalinist” well into the 21st century “means you’re simply not living in the real world,” the critic Harold Bloom has said. True enough. Yet when Saramago picked up his pen, a richer world was made.

The Elephant’s Journey,” Saramago’s slender new posthumous novel, is a road trip. There’s no sex, not much violence, no God-awful narrative arc, and the insights arrive as gently as a skiff pulling up to a riverbank. Confounding though it is for me to say (believing as I do the mind of the apparatchik to be the nastiest soup), it would be hard to more highly recommend a novel to be downed in a single draft.

Saramago disliked America and cars — he once said that being in a car was like being in a spaceship that protects you from everything — so his road trip is naturally dustier, with ox carts on sunburnt plains, cuirassiers, swirling mists, wolves and snows. It is 1551. João III of Portugal gives an elephant from his Lisbon menagerie to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The elephant is called Solomon. His mahout is named Subhro. Together, whispering to each other a tongue known only to them and born of solitude, they journey on foot from Lisbon to Valladolid, to Catalonia, by sea to Genoa, on to Venice, over the Alps, arriving at Innsbruck on the feast day of Epiphany in 1552, before continuing by barge down the rivers Inn and Danube toward Vienna.
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