The Elephant's Journey
  • The Elephant's Journey
  • The Elephant's Journey

The Elephant's Journey

3.6 11
by José Saramago

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"The Enchanting Tale of an elephant, his keeper, and their journey through sixteenth-century Europe, based on a true story" "A Quixote-esque journey, in the company of porters, guards, priests, officials, lords and ladies...and at the same time, a meditation, a reflection on humanity, on its flaws and weaknesses, on power, on friendship-La Repubblica (Italy)" "A

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"The Enchanting Tale of an elephant, his keeper, and their journey through sixteenth-century Europe, based on a true story" "A Quixote-esque journey, in the company of porters, guards, priests, officials, lords and ladies...and at the same time, a meditation, a reflection on humanity, on its flaws and weaknesses, on power, on friendship-La Repubblica (Italy)" "A novel of wit, warmth and wonder...JosT Saramago once again shows why he's a master storyteller." Yann Martel" "A triumph of language, imagination, and humor."-El Pais (Spain)" "In 1551, King Jopo III or Portugal decided to give Archduke maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon, along with his keeper, Subhro. The two have been living in dismal conditions, forgotten in a corner of the palace grounds. When it occurs to the king and queen that an elephant might be an appropriate wedding gift, everyone rushes to get them ready: Subhro is given two new suits of clothes and Solomon a long-overdue scrub." Accompanied by the archduke, his new bride, and the royal guard, our unlikely heroes traverse a continent riven by the Reformation and civil war. They make their way through the storied cities of northern Italy: Genoa, Piacenza, Mantua, Verona, Venice, and Trent, where the Council of Trent is in session. They brave the Alps and the Terrifying Isarco and Brenner passes; they sail across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Inn River. (Elephants, it turns out, are natural sailors.) At last they make their grand entry into the imperial city of Vienna.

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Editorial Reviews

Steven G. Kellman

The distance between Lisbon and Vienna is 1,429 miles as the crow flies. As the elephant trudges, it is a more arduous expedition. How do you convey an Asian pachyderm from the Portuguese capital to the seat of the Habsburg empire? Very carefully, especially if the beast is a wedding present from King João III of Portugal to the Archduke Maximilian and his bride, Maria, daughter of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. In a brief prologue to The Elephant's Journey, José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Laureate who died last June, explains that he learned about this extraordinary transport when, visiting Salzburg, he encountered a set of carvings commemorating the event. He was inspired to write a whimsical novel about how, in 1551, a four-ton elephant named Solomon but renamed Suleiman was brought from Portugal to Spain and then by boat to Italy and up through the Alps to Austria.

Though Hannibal transported elephants from Carthage to assist his assault on Rome, the enormous tusked animal was a rarity in 16th-century Europe. The Elephant's Journey is a book of wonder, not only in local astonishment at glimpsing an alien behemoth who consumes 150 kilograms of forage a day. The novel is a shaggy elephant story that uses King João's gift as a tale on which to hang ruminations on the mysteries of social rank, religious orthodoxy, consciousness, and language. This is historical fiction less intent, like Wolf Hall, on immersing us in a fully realized past, than, like The French Lieutenant's Woman, on playing with stereoscopic calibrations between past and present. Its nattering narrator ranges among past, present, and future tenses and between the 16th and 21st centuries. He fills in stretches of the journey that lack documentation with farfetched digressions, and he both commits and exults in anachronisms, pointing out that such words as "lilliputian" and "wagnerian" would not have meant anything in 1551. Nor did cinema exist, though he presents the story as a foreign film for which he provides the subtitles. The narrator advises us that he will tacitly substitute units of measurement current now for those contemporary with the Archduke Maximilian: "It will be as if we were adding subtitles in our own language to a film, a concept unknown in the sixteenth century, to compensate for our ignorance or imperfect knowledge of the language spoken by the actors. We will, therefore, have two parallel discourses that will never meet, this one, which we will be able to follow without difficulty and another, which, from this moment on, will remain silent." He pronounces his own ingenuity "An interesting solution."

As the second most important character in this story of an elephant, the narrator nominates Subhro, who was imported from India along with Solomon two years earlier to be the animal's mahout -- i.e., handler. Sitting atop Solomon, Subhro commands a lofty vista denied either peasants or archdukes. But he is savvy enough to recognize that mahouts occupy a precarious perch in European society. When Maximilian -- who also decrees that Solomon be known as Suleiman -- finds the man's Bengali name too difficult to pronounce and changes it to Fritz, the foreigner formerly known as Subhro does not resist his fate. In Padua, the elephant kneels before the Basilica of Saint Anthony, and when the act is proclaimed a miracle, Fritz exploits popular credulity by selling Suleiman's sacred hairs. The scheme antagonizes Maximilian, who favors Martin Luther's heretical ideas, which an ecclesiastical council is scheming to suppress even as the elephant convoy passes through Trent.

The captain of the Portuguese cavalry that escorts the elephant from Lisbon as far as Valladolid carries a copy of Amadis of Gaul, the same ridiculous romance that inspires Don Quixote to undertake his preposterous exploits. When an Austrian contingent arrives to relieve the Portuguese troops, the captain's fantasies of valor almost precipitate a war. Saramago presents the ordeal of wolves, clergy, nobility, rain, and snow that Suleiman and Fritz survive as a mock epic, one that mocks even its own powers of mockery. Well into the journey, after many attempts to recount what happens along the way, the narrator admits that: "…it is simply not possible to describe a landscape or, by extension, anything else." The Elephant's Journey is a lesser accomplishment than The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1986) and All the Names (1997). Yet, in sinuous sentences and dense paragraphs that are his literary signature, Saramago has left us with a witty, spunky trunk show.

--Steven G. Kellman

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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Strange though it may seem to anyone unaware of the importance of the marital bed in the efficient workings of public administration, regardless of whether that bed has been blessed by church or state or no one at all, the first step of an elephant’s extraordinary journey to austria, which we propose to describe hereafter, took place in the royal apartments of the portuguese court, more or less at bedtime. And it is no mere accident that we chose to use the vague expression more or less. For this enables us, with admirable elegance, to avoid having to go into details of a physical and physiological nature, often sordid and almost always ridiculous, and which, set down on paper, would offend the strict catholicism of dom joão the third, king of portugal and of the algarves, and of dona catarina of austria, his wife and the future grandmother of the same dom sebastião who will go off to lead the attack on alcácer-quibir and die there during the first assault, or perhaps the second, although there are also those who say he died of an illness on the eve of battle. This is what the king, with furrowed brow, said to the queen, I’m worried about something, my lady, About what, my lord, The gift we gave to our cousin maximilian at the time of his marriage four years ago always seemed to me unworthy of his lineage and his merits, and now that we have him close to home, so to speak, in his role as regent of spain in the city of valladolid, I would like to offer him something more valuable, more striking, what do you think, my lady, A monstrance would be a good idea, my lord, a monstrance, I find, is always most welcome, perhaps because it has the virtue of combining material value and spiritual significance, Our holy church would not appreciate such liberality, it doubtless still retains in its infallible memory cousin maximilian’s confessed sympathies for the reforms of the lutheran protestants, or were they calvinists, I was never quite sure, Vade retro, satana, exclaimed the queen, crossing herself, such a thought had never even occurred to me, now I’ll have to go to confession first thing in the morning, Why tomorrow in particular, my lady, given that it is your custom to go to confession every day, asked the king, Because of the vile idea that the enemy placed on my vocal cords, oh, I can feel my throat burning as if it had been scorched by a breath from hell itself. Accustomed to the queen’s sensory excesses, the king shrugged and returned to the difficult task of finding a present that might satisfy archduke maximilian of austria. The queen was murmuring a prayer and had just begun another when, suddenly, she stopped and almost shouted out, There’s always solomon, What, asked the king, perplexed by this untimely invocation of the king of judah, Yes, my lord, solomon the elephant, And what has the elephant got to do with anything, asked the king somewhat waspishly, He could be the gift, my lord, answered the queen, standing up, euphoric and very excited, He’s not exactly an appropriate wedding present, That doesn’t matter. The king nodded slowly three times, paused and then nodded another three times, after which he said, Yes, it’s an interesting idea, It’s more than interesting, it’s a very good idea, an excellent idea, retorted the queen, unable to suppress a gesture of impatience, almost of insubordination, the creature came from india more than two years ago, and since then he’s done nothing but eat and sleep, with his water trough always full and a constant supply of food, it’s as if he were a kept beast, but one who’ll never earn his keep, That’s hardly the poor creature’s fault, there’s no suitable work for him here, unless we were to send him to the docks on the river tagus to transport planks, but the poor thing would only suffer, because his professional specialty is transporting felled trees, so much better suited to the curve of his trunk, Send him off to vienna, then, But how, asked the king, That’s not our affair, once cousin maximilian is the owner, it will be a matter for him to resolve, he is, I assume, still in valladolid, As far as I know, yes, Obviously, solomon would have to travel to valladolid on foot, he has the legs for it after all, And then on to vienna as well, he’ll have no alternative, It’s a long way, said the queen, A very long way, agreed the king gravely, and added, I’ll write to cousin maximilian tomorrow, and if he accepts, we’ll have to agree on dates and ascertain certain facts, for example, when he intends leaving for vienna, and how many days it would take for solomon to travel from lisbon to valladolid, after that, it’s up to him, we wash our hands of the affair, Yes, we wash our hands, said the queen, but deep inside, which is where the contradictions of the self do battle, she felt a sudden sadness at the thought of sending solomon off to such distant lands and into the care of strangers.

Early the following morning, the king summoned his secretary, pêro de alcáçova carneiro, and dictated a letter that did not come out well at the first attempt, nor at the second or the third, and in the end it had to be handed over entirely to his secretary, who had the necessary rhetorical skills as well as a knowledge of the etiquette and epistolary formulae used between sovereigns, all of which he had learned at the best of all possible schools, namely, from his father, antónio carneiro, from whom he had inherited the post. The resulting letter was perfect as regards both penmanship and argument, not even omitting the theoretical possibility, diplomatically expressed, that the gift might not be to the liking of the archduke, who would, nevertheless, find it extremely hard to reply in the negative, for the king of portugal also stated, in a key passage in the letter, that there was nothing in the whole of his kingdom as precious as the elephant solomon, both because he represented the unifying force of the divine creation that connects and establishes a kinship between all the species, why, some even say that man himself was made out of what was left over after the elephant had been created, and because of the symbolic, intrinsic and worldly values that the creature embodied. When the letter had been signed and sealed, the king summoned his master of the horse, a gentleman who enjoyed his complete confidence and to whom he first summarized the contents of the missive, then ordered him to select an escort worthy of his rank, but one, above all, that would prove equal to the responsibility of the mission with which he was being charged. The gentleman kissed the hand of the king, who, with all the solemnity of an oracle, spoke these sibylline words, Be as swift as the north wind and as sure as the flight of the eagle, Yes, my lord. Then, the king adopted quite a different tone and offered some pieces of practical advice, I don’t need to remind you to change horses as often as proves necessary, that is what staging-posts are for, and this is no time for false economies, I will give instructions for the stables to be supplied with more horses, and one other thing, I think you should, if you can, in order to gain time, try to sleep on your horse while you gallop along the roads of castile. The master of the horse did not understand the king’s little joke, or else preferred to let it pass, and merely said, Your highness’s orders will be carried out to the letter, I pledge my word and my life on it, and then he withdrew, walking backwards and bowing every three steps. No one could have a finer master of the horse, said the king. The secretary decided not to give voice to the adulatory sentiment that would consist in saying that the king’s master of the horse could hardly be anything else or behave any differently, given that he had been personally chosen by his royal highness. He had the feeling that he had said something similar only a few days before. At the time, he had recalled some advice of his father’s, Be careful, my son, any flattering remark, if repeated too often, will always wear thin in the end and become, instead, as wounding as any insult. And so the secretary, although not for the same reasons as the master of the horse, also chose to say nothing. It was during this brief silence that the king finally gave expression to a worrying thought that had occurred to him on waking, I’ve been thinking, I feel that I should go and see solomon, Does your highness wish me to call the royal guard, asked the secretary, No, two pageboys will be more than enough, one to carry messages and the other to go and find out why the first has not yet returned, oh, and yourself, secretary, if you would care to accompany me, You do me great honor, highness, far more than I deserve, Perhaps I do so in order that you may deserve still more, like your father, may he rest in peace, Allow me to kiss your highness’s hand with all the love and respect with which I kissed his, Now that is far more than I deserve, said the king, smiling, Ah, no one can outdo your highness in dialectic and response, Although there are those who say that the fates who presided over my birth did not endow me with a gift for words, Words are not everything, my lord, going to visit the elephant solomon today is a poetic act and will perhaps be seen as such in the future, What is a poetic act, asked the king, No one knows, my lord, we only recognize it when it happens, So far, though, I have only mentioned my intention of visiting solomon, Ah, but the word of a king would, I’m sure, be enough, That, I believe, is what rhetoricians call irony, Forgive me, your highness, You are forgiven, secretary, and if all your sins are of like gravity, your place in heaven is guaranteed, Possibly, but I’m not sure that this would be the best time to go to heaven, What do you mean by that, There is the inquisition to consider, sir, confession and absolution are no longer the safe-conduct passes they once were, The inquisition will maintain unity among christians, that is its objective, And a very holy objective it is, highness, but what means will it use to achieve that, If the end is holy, then the means to that end will also be holy, retorted the king rather sharply, Forgive me, your highness, and may I, May you what, May I ask you to excuse me from today’s visit to solomon, I feel that I would not prove to be very agreeable company for your highness, No, I will not excuse you, I need your presence in the enclosure, But why, sir, if I may be so bold as to ask, Because I lack the intelligence to know if what you termed a poetic act will take place or not, replied the king with a half-smile that gave his beard and mustache a mischievous, almost mephistophelian look, I await your orders, my lord, At five o’clock prompt, I want four horses to be brought round to the palace gate, and make sure that my mount is large, strong and docile, I’ve never been much of a rider and I’m even less of one now, what with all the aches and pains that age brings with it, Yes, my lord, And choose the pageboys who are to come with me very carefully, I don’t want the kind who laugh at the slightest thing, it makes me feel like wringing their necks, Yes, my lord.

In the end, they did not leave until half past five because the queen, when she found out about the planned excursion, declared that she wanted to go too. It was very hard to convince her that it made no sense at all to prepare a carriage merely to go as far as belém, where solomon’s enclosure had been built. And you certainly don’t intend going on horseback, said the king peremptorily, determined not to allow any arguments. The queen obeyed this ill-disguised prohibition and withdrew, muttering that no one in portugal, or indeed in the whole world, loved solomon as much as she did. As can be seen, the contradictions of the self were multiplying. Having called the poor animal a kept beast, the worst possible insult for an irrational creature who had been forced to labor in india, on no pay, for years and years, catarina of austria was now revealing a hint of chivalrous remorse that had almost led her to challenge, at least outwardly, the authority of her lord, her husband and her king. It was basically a storm in a teacup, a minor conjugal crisis that would, inevitably, vanish with the return of the master of the horse, regardless of what answer he might bring. If the archduke accepted the elephant, the problem would resolve itself or, rather, the journey to vienna would resolve it, and if he didn’t accept it, then they would simply have to say, once again, with the centuries-old experience of all peoples, that, despite the disappointments, frustrations and disillusions that are the daily bread of men and elephants alike, life goes on. Solomon has no idea what awaits him. The master of the horse, the emissary of his fate, is riding toward val- ladolid, having recovered from the unfortunate results of trying to sleep while on horseback, and the king of portugal, with his modest escort of secretary and pageboys, is about to arrive at the river’s edge at belém, within sight of the jerónimos monastery and solomon’s enclosure. Given time, everything in the universe will dovetail perfectly with everything else. There is the elephant. Although he is smaller than his african relatives, one can still see, beneath the layer of dirt covering him, the fine figure nature had in mind when she created him. Why is the animal so dirty, asked the king, where is his keeper, I assume there is a keeper. A man with indian features approached, he was dressed in little more than rags, a mixture of his original clothes and others made locally, barely covered by or barely covering scraps of the more exotic fabrics that had arrived, along with the elephant, on that same body, two years before. He was the mahout. The secretary soon realized that the keeper had not recognized the king, and since this was clearly not the moment for any formal introductions, along the lines of, your highness, allow me to introduce solomon’s keeper, and this, sir indian, is the king of portugal, dom joão the third, who will come to be known as dom joão the pious, instead, he ordered the two pageboys to go into the enclosure and inform the bewildered mahout of the titles and qualities of the bearded personage currently fixing him with a stern gaze that boded no good, It’s the king. The man stopped, as if he had been struck by a bolt of lightning, and then made as if to escape, but the pageboys caught hold of him by his rags and propelled him toward the stockade. The king, meanwhile, was standing on a rustic ladder that had been propped against the stockade, and was observing the spectacle with an air of irritation and repugnance, regretting having given in to that early-morning impulse to pay a sentimental visit to this pachyderm, to this ridiculous proboscidean more than four ells high, who, god willing, will soon be depositing his malodorous excretions on the pretentious austrian city of vienna. The blame, at least in part, lay with the secretary and his comment about poetic acts, a comment that was still going round and round in the king’s head. He shot a challenging glance at the otherwise estimable functionary, who, as if he had read his mind, said, Your coming here, my lord, was, indeed, a poetic act, and the elephant was merely the pretext, nothing more. The king muttered some inaudible remark, then said in a clear, firm voice, I want that animal washed, right now. He felt like a king, he was a king, and that feeling is understandable when you consider that never in his entire life as monarch had he uttered such a sentence. The pageboys passed the sovereign’s order on to the mahout, and the man ran to a shed in which were stored things that looked like and may well have been tools, as well as others that no one could have said quite what they were. Beside the shed was a building, presumably the keeper’s house, made out of planks and with an unboarded roof. He returned carrying a long-handled broom, filled a bucket from the wine vat that served as water trough and set to work. The elephant’s pleasure was plain to see. The water and the scrubbing motion of the broom must have awoken in him some pleasant memory, a river in india, the rough trunk of a tree, and the proof was that for as long as the washing lasted, a good half hour, he did not move from the spot, standing firm on his powerful legs, as if he were hypnotized. Knowing as one does the preeminent virtues of bodily cleanliness, it was no surprise to find that in the place where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendor. A somewhat relative splendor, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a grayish coffee color and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu. He surrendered himself to being washed as if he were expecting a miracle, a baptism, but the result was there for all to see, hairs and freckles. The king had not visited the elephant for over a year, he had forgotten the details and did not like what he was seeing at all. Apart, that is, from the pachyderm’s long tusks, resplendently white and only slightly curved, like two swords pointing forward. But there was worse. Suddenly, the king of portugal, and of the algarves, who, a little earlier, had been so thrilled to have found the perfect present to give the emperor charles the fifth’s son-in-law, felt as if he were about to fall off the ladder and into the gaping maw of ignominy. This is what the king was thinking, What if the archduke doesn’t like him, what if he finds him ugly, what if he accepts the gift in principle, sight unseen, then sends him back, how will I bear the shame of being slighted in the compassionate or ironic eyes of the european community. What do you think of him, what impression does the creature make on you, the king asked his secretary, desperate for the scrap of hope that could only come from him, Pretty and ugly, my lord, are merely relative terms, to the owl even his owlets are pretty, what I see here, to apply a general law to one particular case, is a magnificent example of the asian elephant, with all the hairs and freckles proper to its nature, which will be sure to delight the archduke and astonish not only the court and the population of vienna, but also the ordinary people who see him along the way. The king gave a sigh of relief, Yes, I suppose you’re right, Indeed, sir, and if I know anything about that other nature, the human variety, I would even go so far as to say, if your majesty will allow me, that this elephant with its hairs and freckles will become a political tool of the first order for the archduke of austria, if he is as astute as the evidence thus far suggests. Help me down, this conversation is making me dizzy. With the help of the secretary and the two pageboys, the king managed, without too much difficulty, to descend the few rungs he had climbed. He took a deep breath when he felt terra firma beneath his feet again and, for no apparent reason, unless, and this is pure speculation, for it is far too early to know for sure, the sudden oxygenation of his blood and the consequent renewal of the blood circulating around his brain made him think of something which, in normal circumstances, would probably never have occurred to him. It was this, The man cannot possibly go to vienna looking like that, dressed in rags, so order two suits to be made for him, one for work, when he has to ride on top of the elephant, and the other for social occasions, so that he does not cut a poor figure at the austrian court, nothing fancy, you understand, but worthy of the country sending him there, Of course, my lord, By the way, what is his name. A page was dispatched to find out, and the answer, passed on by the secretary, was more or less this, subhro. Subro, repeated the king, what kind of name is that, It’s spelled with an h, sir, at least so he said, explained the secretary, We should have just called him joaquim when he first arrived in portugal, grumbled the king.


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From the Publisher
"It would be hard to more highly recommend a novel to be downed in a single draft…Simply, this books flows, and keeps on flowing."
The New York Times

"His most optimistic, playful, humorous and magical book, a grace note written near the end of his life...The Elephant's Journey is a tale rich in irony and empathy, regularly interrupted by witty reflections on human nature and arch commentary on the powerful who insult human dignity."
Los Angeles Times

"Saramago...spun this whimsical yet compulsively readable's a perfect example of why [he] will be remembered as a master of surreal, enchanting prose."

"A picaresque romp that gleefully skewers the benighted souls clinging to outmoded worldviews while breathtaking new realities unfold right in front of them."
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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The Elephant's Journey 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
X_in_SF More than 1 year ago
I'm a pretty big fan of Jose Saramago, but I found this book slow and couldn't actually finish it. There wasn't a compelling character in the book (at least in the first half) to keep me caring.
Charlottes-son More than 1 year ago
Simply charming. Based on some strung together facts, this book is a simple good read. The writing is captivating. The story almost unbelievable. 
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