Historical Book Review: The Elephant’s Journey

I haven’t actually finished The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, but I couldn’t wait to blog about it because this is the best book I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it for anyone who is a fan of elephants or historical fiction.

It’s based on a true story of an Indian elephant given by the king of Portugal to the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as a wedding present. The elephant must make the journey from Portugal to Austria, accompanied by Subhro, his trainer (or Mahout) who has been with him since India, an armed guard of 30 people, and an ox cart with provisions. The elephant, however, is the main character, as the narrator specifically points out.

The narrator himself is very interesting. Apparently he detests capitalization and punctuation of any kind, so the entire narrative flows together with minimal friction, and the reader eventually gets used to it. He also has a coy habit of addressing the reader directly at intervals, (which is exactly what I did in my first yet-unpublished novel, and I had been criticized for it many times. Hmph!) As a fellow compulsive reader-addresser, I can’t help but appreciate such lines as:

The wolves appeared the following day. Perhaps they had heard us mention them earlier and finally decided to show up.

The narrator is happy to take frequent breaks and digressions from narrating in order to reflect on the story. There is an incredible amount of funny and quotable phrases, such as the following, which occurs when the king is inspecting the neglected elephant and finds that it’s covered in dirt:

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 a monarch had he uttered such a sentence.

Overall, the novel gives the impression of someone looking at very distant history through a fuzzy lens, trying to sort out what actually happened. At the same time, the reader also feels very close to the characters, as we’re allowed a glimpse into their thoughts and feelings. It’s a very touching story, maybe because there’s an animal protagonist who is kinder and wiser than the people around him. As I said, I haven’t quite finished reading, so I don’t know whether the elephant survives the difficult journey, but I hope he makes it!

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4 thoughts on “Historical Book Review: The Elephant’s Journey

  1. Hi Sonya. Is your first novel written in first person? Because I find that those reflective asides are much less jarring that way, as they are framed by the artifice of someone telling a story, and that’s the way real people tell stories. I actually like it a lot when first-person narrators pause and reflect; otherwise, the story just comes off like a news broadcast: first this happened, then this happened, then that happened. Boring. My narrator does it a fair bit in my novel-in-progress. Next time I read for the group, I’ll try to find such a scene and see how it’s received.

  2. Hi Janna! Looking forward to your reading… maybe this week! I should dig up my old novel and read it sometime to see what everyone thinks. It was written in third person, but you could say the narrator had her own persona. I just can’t resist making smart-ass comments when I’m telling a story.

  3. I’m also curious about whether or not the elephant survived in the book. It would be disappointing for the elephant to die because I’ve read too many books (and seen too many movies) where the dog dies at the end. It would almost be trite to kill off an elephant too.

  4. Haha, it does seem trite. Sometimes it seems like the author is only a “literary” author if he kills off the main character whether it’s elephant or dog… Although Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” is evidence to the contrary — a literary masterpiece where the dog doesn’t die at all.

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