The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for long journeys


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Ailment: Journeys, long

Cure: The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago

A numb bum, road rage, mindless boredom, the back-seat wails of "Are we there yet?". Such are the trials and tribulations of long journeys. But there is another way. Our cure today is chosen to remind you that while being in transit may trap your body, it frees your mind in wondrous ways.

Few journeys undertaken in contemporary times can be as excruciatingly slow and hazardous as that undertaken by the elephant and his escort in José Saramago's The Elephant's Journey – a fictional account of a real-life journey that took place between 1551-2.

The king of Portugal, Dom João III, senses that the wedding present he gave his cousin four years ago was inadequate, and one evening has the bright idea of sending him an elephant instead. The four-ton pachyderm is duly dispatched in the care of an Indian 'mahout' (the philosophically-inclined Subhro). The voyage is made perilous not just by distance, terrain and weather but also by wolves, bandits and the malodorous excretions of the elephant itself. A car trip from London to La Plagne will seem a cinch in comparison.

But Saramago's novel cures on a deeper level, too. A model of good, old-fashioned plotlessness, the story meanders its unhurried, unapologetic way towards the triumphant entry into Vienna with nary a cliffhanger in sight. As you wander in Saramago's ever-laconic company, pause to revel in his astute observations of human nature – for when else do our busy lives allow for such random musings?

Use it as a way to put your brain back on an adult setting after the back-seat demands for instant fixes. Not least because, as Saramago points out, "When the mind wanders, when it carries us off on the wings of daydreams, we do not even notice the distances travelled..."

'The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies' (Canongate, £17.99);