Book Quote:

“It is said, once tolstoy had said it first, that all happy families are alike, and there is really little more to say about them. It would seem that the same is true of happy elephants. One need look no further than suleiman. During the two weeks he spent in bressanone, he rested, slept, ate and drank his fill, until he could eat no more, demolishing something like four tons of forage and drinking about three thousand liters of water, thus making up for the many enforced slimming regimes imposed on him during his long journey through the lands of portugal, spain and italy, when it wasn’t always possible to replenish his larder on a regular basis.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (OCT 13, 2010)

Saramago can look intimidating on the page, with his grey blocks of unbroken text and almost total avoidance of capital letters. But once you get used to his peculiarities (it takes only a few pages), you find a congenial companion with warmly humane ideas wittily expressed. This is a relatively minor book, a mere tale of 200 pages, but I can think of no better introduction to the Nobel laureate’s work. But as the first book published in translation since the writer’s death in June 2010 (there is one novel, Cain, still to come), one might equally call it the genial farewell of a great master.

It is based on fact. In 1551, King João III of Portugal presented an Indian elephant named Solomon to Archduke Maximilian of Austria (the future Holy Roman Emperor) as a belated wedding present on his marriage to the daughter of King Carlos of Spain. The happy couple were currently in Valladolid, but due shortly to return to Vienna. So João sends the elephant under escort to the Spanish frontier, from where the procession moves on foot across Spain to the Mediterranean coast, by ship to Genoa, across Northern Italy to Padua, then North through the Alps to Innsbruck and by river to the gates of Vienna, a journey that takes them from late summer into early winter. Not being José Saramago, I can honor titled men with capital letters in the customary places, but the author has little time for grandees being grandees. Instead, he presents them as ordinary men, fallible and human like the rest of us. When João III climbs a ladder to look over the elephant’s enclosure in Belém, the animal’s keeper fails to recognize this small bearded man as king. Archduke Maximilian wants the elephant to lead his carriage on his triumphal progress northward, until he is forced to admit that his advisers were right who warned him of the fragrant offerings the elephant would lay under his wheels.

The hero of this story, other than the elephant himself, is also an ordinary man: Subhro, the elephant’s mahout or driver. Even when the Archduke changes his name to Fritz (and the elephant’s to Suleiman), he retains his dignity. Arriving in Genoa, “it occurred to him that, all things considered, archdukes, kings and emperors were really nothing more than mahouts mounted on elephants.” True. This is the communist Samarago speaking, but there is nothing vindictive about his egalitarianism; by painting everyone in terms of their common humanity, he elevates them to a level where simple wisdom and practical common sense win out over posturing. The book is full of potential disasters that are averted because some quite ordinary person knew how to say the words that would deflate ego and assuage wounded pride.

Saramago’s other bête noire, organized religion, also comes in for some gentle deflation. When asked if he is a Christian, Subhro replies that he has been baptized and follows the faith, more or less. But he believes the gospels no more than the stories of the Hindu god Ganesh with an elephant’s head; both are metaphors containing much wisdom, but neither holds a monopoly on truth. Approaching Trent, where the Council of clerics is meeting to debate the response of the Catholic Church to Lutheranism, Subhro is asked to participate in the faking of a small miracle outside the church of St. Anthony (another transplanted Portuguese) in Padua. He obliges, and then briefly makes a profitable business on the side selling tufts of holy elephant hair to cure baldness.

But the most charming figure in the story might well be Saramago himself, whose presence as commentator and narrator is never forgotten. There is a scene fairly early in the book when the convoy is temporarily shrouded in a dense mist that makes people imagine things that are not there. Let’s leave it to Saramago to blow away those literal mists as he will blow away so many figurative ones:

“The fact is that the sun, like a vast broom of light, suddenly broke through the mist and swept it away. The landscape revealed itself as it had always been, stones, trees, ravines, and mountains. The three men are no longer there. The mahout opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again. The man who insisted he’d heard the elephant speak began to lose consistency and substance, to shrink, then grow round and transparent as a soap bubble, if the poor-quality soaps of the time were capable of forming the crystalline marvels that someone had the genius to invent, then he suddenly disappeared from view. 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 at least ten pages. Plof.”

(Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 53 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (September 8, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on José Saramago
EXTRAS: HMH Books on Saramago
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:



October 13, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Posted in: Nobel Prize for Literature, Translated, World Lit

One Response

  1. dougbrun - October 15, 2010

    Roger ~ Thank you for your review. Saramago is among my favorite writers and I think your review is insightful and compelling. I wasn’t familiar with this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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