Richard Elliott reviews José Saramago's The Elephant’s Journey.
The late Portuguese writer José Saramago was a master at combining the fantastic with the banal, the metaphoric with the everyday. There’s always a sense in his prose that, whatever the story he might be telling us, there are a multitude of stories framing it, running alongside it, or visible just beyond its borders. Saramago wants us to know that those stories, which are sometimes really observations and sometimes fantastical retellings of official history, need to be included in the story he is telling us, such that we imagine, or he lets us believe we imagine, that what is unfolding in the labyrinth of his text is one, unending metastory. Frequently, in his wandering, loosely punctuated prose—sometimes described as magical realism, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness, but perhaps just as easily thought of as the flow of history running all around us and threatening to flood the present—he will take us sidestepping through the fragile walls that separate these universes, giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture before shuttling us back to the scene in which this particular story is taking place.Click to read the full article
The Elephant’s Journey, published in Portuguese in 2008, was one of Saramago’s last works. The journey of the title is inspired by historical events that occurred in 1551, when King João III of Portugal decided, on the advice of his Austrian wife, to give Archduke Maximilian the belated wedding gift of an elephant. Solomon, the elephant, and Subhro, his keeper or mahout, have been languishing in Lisbon since being brought back from Goa two years prior. It’s decided that both will travel to Valladolid in Spain, to meet with the Archduke, and then proceed with him to Rosas on the East coast, then across the Mediterranean to Genoa in Italy, and on to the imperial city of Vienna.