Review: The Elephant Journey by José Saramago

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


It is by chance that José Saramago stumbled upon the history of this elephant's journey. In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present - an elephant named Solomon. Solomon and his Indian mahout, Subhro, travel from Lisbon to Vienna with a interesting motley of characters. The details of the travel are not historically known, but Saramago has woven an interesting fictional tale recounting that journey.

I have to confess that my expectations from this book were low. I had never read Saramago before, although I did try to read his The Stone Raft, with which I didn't have any success. I was very worried about whether his books were even for me. But finally, the title is what prompted me to request this book from NetGalley. I then received a protected PDF that would expire within 60 days. Since I wasn't too keen to read it, I let the days lapse by, until eventually I found myself on a flight to NY with no reading planned. By then, I had less than two weeks on the book, so I decided to start it.

First thing I noticed is that the ebook is short - less than 200 pages. The next thing I realized is that I had to keep my seat belt really tight because I was rolling on the seat, laughing my head off! The Elephant's Journey was freaking funny! And no, it wasn't funny in the characters-joking-with-each-other sense. Rather, it was in Saramago's clever and occasionally quirky writing that I found the humor. Moreover, although The Elephant's Journey is an account of the elephant's journey between the two places, it was much more than that - it had some outlandish characters who will stay in your mind, it has some very interesting interactions, and it also has some lovely elephantine (in both senses of the word) wickedness!

As you would expect, Solomon the elephant is the main character of this book. José Saramago reminds us many times that we can never know what the elephant is thinking or why he is doing a particular act. In the same vein, he takes liberty with making the elephant do funny yet honorable actions and explaining them for our benefit. These humorous passages made me wish that I was part of the human entourage that went with Solomon - oh, what an amazing elephant (can you guess that my favorite animal is the elephant? If they came in smaller sizes, I would have adopted them.. sigh)

The mahout - the caretaker of the elephant - was a man with his own mind. Although he is way below in the hierarchical strata of the monarchy, he would unknowingly question the leaders, landing himself in a soup each time. Then again, he is the one who knows Solomon best and his affections for the animal are very obvious. Coming from a country where I see elephants walk by my house every day, I can tell you that not all mahouts are "nice". After all they will argue that to control a huge beast, you need to be a bit "stern". I loved it that Saramago didn't vilify Subhro but instead painted him as the most understanding of the mahouts.

The Elephant's Journey has some more interesting characters - the archduke who spends half his time getting his wife pregnant (for 16 times overall). I know it is rude to laugh of the dead, so I nobly stifled my laughter as I read this (really hard to do that because then you start snorting). Then there is a priest who demands that the elephant should bow in front of the church (oh my - you should read this!), the captain of the Portuguese army with whom Subhro shares the best rapport. Indeed the two sat together and planned the order in which the various members of the troop should travel so that no one has to wait for another. And several more!

Eventually, I finished reading this on on my nook with just 16 minutes to spare, so I did not get the time to jot down any passages! And how I would love to do that since there is so much hilarity romping through the book. I feel more optimistic about reading José Saramago, even if his other books are widely different. The only thing that bothered me about The Elephant's Journey was when the narration took a philosophical view on things. But even then, I couldn't wait to turn the pages to continue with the adventure! Top recommendation!

    

Check out this book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt @ Goodreads, BetterWorldBooks, Amazon, B&N.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley.

7 comments:

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Great to hear this as I have a copy. You need to read Blindness by Saramago...awesome.

Marce said...

Oh that does sound interesting. I have Blindness to try by JoseS.

Great review, I got a feel for it.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Awesome review :)

Felicia the Geeky Blogger said...

I have ran into that problem a few times. I understand the idea behind protected PDF's it just sometimes is not enough time :)

Emidy (Une Parole) said...

Phenomenal review! I agree - elephants are such sweet animals. Especially the babies. They're gorgeous!

As for the book, I'm really interested in reading it now. The author sounds very talented!

Aths said...

Diane, thanks for the recommendation! I'm going to add it. I'm looking forward to your review.

Marce, thank you! I hope you like it too.

Juju, thanks! :)

Felicia, I totally agree. Heck, we sometimes read the review books more than 60 days after we get them. It's so unfair that these PDFs expire!

Emidy, elephants sure are gorgeous! The babies look so cuddly! I hope you like the book! You should read it!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Awesome review! I was ready for you to tell me it's a long, serious book and then BAM! You say it's funny. How great is that?!