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The Elephant's Journey, By José Saramago (trs Margaret Jull Costa)

A gift that has kept on giving

This whimsical novel tells the real-life story of how, in 1551, an elephant was sent as a gift from the King of Portugal to the Habsburg Archduke.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the mahout, or elephant driver, and deals in wise, witty and digressive style with the obstacles and encounters of the journey from Lisbon and over the Alps to Vienna, during which the four-ton Solomon becomes a character of considerable pathos.

The novel's unorthodox punctuation is a little annoying – accurate, subtle punctuation is surely part of the craft of writing – but does add to the cool, distanced tone of the narration. A playful, intellectual, very European novel, at times it feels reminiscent of Kafka in his lighter moments.