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 He also has a coy habit of addressing the reader directly at intervals, (which is exactly what I did in my first yet-unpublished novel, and I had been criticized for it many times.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!