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
Friday 27 August 2010
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
Geoffrey Macnab reviews American Hustle, also starring Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
news Opponents claim it would stop performers such as Beyonce and Madonna appearing on TV
It takes a platoon of chefs, litres of brandy and rum, and almost 100kg of dried fruit
newsThat most ancient of crimes is on the rise, threatening farmers' livelihoods, community trust – and human health
Arts & Ents blogs
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
Justin Bieber is NOT retiring from music
Nymphomaniac, film review: 'Despite the surreal sex scenes this is a serious drama'
Call the Midwife Christmas special: Behind the scenes with Miranda Hart
Justin Bieber's mishaps and controversies
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
You can STILL be jailed for being a republican, government confirms, and it remains illegal to even 'imagine' overthrowing the Queen
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Fighting back: the woman giving a voice (and 49,999 others) to the victims of sexism - by giving an airing to their horror stories
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 4 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- 5 Children evacuated from swimming pool after prosthetic leg mistaken for paedophile
- < Previous
- Next >