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