7.5/10 – historical fiction/parable
I bought this one as a souvenir from my visit to Portugal, in one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores, the Livraria Lello.
Jose Saramago is a Nobel Prize winner for literature, known for The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Blindness, but that doesn’t mean that he is not allowed to write a silly story now and then. Saramago learned about a true story that happened in 1551: the king of Portugal, Joao III, gave an elephant as a gift to the Archduke Maximilian of Vienna. The elephant then travelled all the way from Lisbon to Vienna with his retainer Subhro. Saramago was so taken with this story that he wrote it out as a short novel. He turned it into a parable, in which the elephant Solomon causes all sorts of reactions in the people who see him along the way. 95% of the novel is pure imagination.
It takes a moment to get used to Jose Saramago’s style. He writes very long sentences, using lots of commas, so that, as you can imagine, the sentence runs so long as to cover a whole paragraph, but in that space Saramago manages to convey a whole lot of information, and, believe me, his sentences flow smoothly and the story is still easy to follow, a bit like I am weakly attempting here as an illustration, but, I must confess, I did not win a Nobel Prize, so my example of his style might not convey its real effect.
Saramago is very playful, essentially posing himself as the all-knowing storyteller who teases us with a twinkle in his eye. He injects little life lessons here and there, like when we say goodbye to a certain character, he hints that we might see him again, or not, and that life can be surprising this way. He’s a self-conscious narrator who can’t resist going off on tangents.
The story is really about life and about humans. Solomon the intrepid pachyderm is there to evoke reactions. The elephant is merely an elephant-it walks, gets tired, makes trumpet sounds-and is not treated by Saramago as some kind of fairy tale talking animal, only the humans around him have strong emotions about the big friendly giant. King Joao hopes that Solomon will poop on the austere streets of Vienna, and the Queen Catherine cries when Solomon leaves, even though she never touched the dirty animal. The soldiers that accompany Solomon all feel a sense of wonder.
I didn’t like the layout with the endless paragraphs, and occasionally it is unclear what character is talking, since the dialogue is made part of the paragraphs. Only capital letters designate the start of spoken lines, and all the titles of names and cities are instead without capital letters. These are strange choices. I think Saramago attempted to level down the seriousness of his story this way, but it harms the reading experience a bit. I don’t know whether Saramago writes the same way in his other books or whether this was exclusively for the Elephant’s Journey.
Still, a feeling of warm, gentle humor marks Saramago’s writing, and a focus on human silliness. Amusing and playful might be the best ways to describe the story, and in the end it’s not more than just amusing. It’s short and there is not much to it. It’s worth reading though if you’re on a holiday or lying on a beach.