Harvill Secker, £12.99, 199pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Elephant's Journey, By Jose Saramago, trans. Margaret Jull Costa

The year before José Saramago's untimely death in June was among the most prolific of his intensely active literary life. The Portuguese Nobel laureate was "supposed to have died" from organ failure 18 months earlier, and this book is dedicated to his wife: "To Pilar, who wouldn't let me die". It is the most folkloric – fairy-tale rather than whimsical – of the output won by cheating death. Typically, the other books are each in a different genre: Small Memories is a childhood memoir; A Notebook is a blog of sorts; and Cain, yet to appear in English, the kind of legendary novel in which Saramago has specialised, alternating angry with celebratory passions.

There the resemblances begin. Increasingly, Saramago refused to discriminate between fact and fiction, memoir and myth. Not for nothing in Iberia is the same word – historia – used for both a story and history. So this imaginative tale of an elephant's journey from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551, accompanied by his Goan mahout Subhro (who changes name to Fritz en route), is larded with real cathedrals and royals and eventful episodes, many far more fantastical than the imposing miracles the great pachyderm is called upon to perform en route.

There can be no doubting Saramago's love of animals: they (particularly his dogs) have appeared regularly in his books, and in A Notebook he launched a campaign for Susi, the maltreated cow elephant in Barcelona Zoo. In June 2009, he also recorded how, together with companions, he followed the elephant Solomon's tracks on "an arbitrary itinerary", the idea being "to go away...[and] weave a story out of our travels". The Elephant's Journey takes up the tale, tongue firmly in cheek, spuriously explaining that the Archduke Maximilian – the fortunate recipient of such a giant gift from King João III of Portugal – "decided to make such a journey at this time of year, but that's how it is set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist..."

Intentionally, it is the diversions that make the voyage so worthwhile. Saramago's favourite preoccupations, his love of politics and loathing of religion (and his strictures on each), are reiterated through the words of Subhro: born a Hindu, baptised a Christian, a pacifist and philosopher. Syncretism is all, as the Holy Trinity is redesigned as a Quartet (to include the Blessed Virgin Mary). The miraculous birth and resurrection of Ganesh marks him out as truly Christ-like; and Brahma and God, if not identical, at least are on speaking terms.

But it is Solomon (or Suleiman) the elephant who remains the hero: "painfully lifting his heavy legs, one, two, one, two" through heat or snow, never lapsing either physically or morally, even during Subhro's (now Fritz's) lamentable fall from grace as he succumbs to temptation. So the story will forever win out over history as "thanks to the inexhaustible generosity of the imagination, we erase faults, fill in lacunae as best we can, forge passages through blind alleys, and invent keys to doors that have never even had locks". Saramago may damn history as "one long succession of missed opportunities" but here he has seized every possible opening to turn an unlikely tale of a transalpine hike into something far larger even than its elephantine subject.

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at the University of East Anglia

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?