Late Portuguese Author José Saramago’s ‘Elephant’ Falls Flat

'The Elephant's Journey' by José Saramago (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Shimwoo Lee

'The Elephant's Journey' by José Saramago is available in bookstores.

“Well, it isn’t every day an elephant appears in our lives,” reflects José Saramago in his latest novel, “The Elephant’s Journey.” Saramago, a Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist who died this past summer, endows his carefully researched work with a set of theoretical and historical ideas that could extend beyond this simple statement of novelty. Most poignantly, Saramago meditates on the very concept of creative non-fiction, exposing the layers of his own narrative artifice to reveal that certain eras and places are inscrutable. To honestly write about the past, real or imagined, a writer must use the thick lens of the present-day, though which certain objects will be obscured entirely. This modesty does not extend to the geopolitical realities of sixteenth-century Europe, which Saramago writes about with subtlety and obvious relish. At times, the novelist’s ironically manicured and high-minded prose succeeds in concretizing the whimsical, antiquarian aesthetic established by this conceptual background.

However, “The Elephant’s Journey” is not primarily a novel of ideas, nor is it a work of great beauty. Rather, it is the charming yet languid true story of King João III of Portugal’s gift of an elephant (named Solomon) to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, and that elephant’s trip from Lisbon to Vienna in the 1550s along with his Indian mahout, or keeper, Subhro; a platoon of the Portuguese military; and the Archduke himself. Overcommitted to the enchantment of this wonderfully odd plotline, Saramago loses the weight of his more interesting ideas and applies his potentially inventive and humorous writing style to subject matter that renders it tedious. Worse, the historical facts of the story itself swallow up the novel’s characters, none of whom have exhibited real depth by the last page.

The most compelling aspects of “The Elephant’s Journey” do not come from the cultural analysis for which Saramago is famous, but rather from a self-referential exploration of the form of the novel. After two characters argue over the distance between them and the nearest town, Saramago explains that the narrator “will use our own modern itinerary units of measurement… It will be as if we were adding subtitles in our own language to a film…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.” The truth of history is irretrievable; only its distorted descendant—fiction, told from a modern perspective—can give its events contemporary meaning.

Later, when the elephant, Subhro, and the Archduke are preparing to cross the formidable Brenner Pass, the narrator instantly admits that, due to changes in the area since the sixteenth century and the limited descriptive power of words themselves, he cannot appropriately capture the scene. The world of Subhro, then, is always at an arm’s length from the reader; everything around the flashlight of the narrative is imperceptible. Though the novelist joyfully mentions the Council of Trent and the Inquisition, actual flavors of the historical moment are shrouded in an intriguing half-darkness.

At times, Saramago’s writing style, characterized by sweeping, endless sentences and few paragraph breaks, as well as dialogue in which separate voices are delineated only by commas, supports the wondrous confusion that the novel reaches at its best moments. The reader is not immersed in a certain character’s point of view but rather in the feeling of discourse itself, in which words, thoughts, and the outside world all combine into a single, integrated impression. When it is successful, Saramago’s absurdly intricate diction helps place the reader in the world of old European royalty.

Yet this language can also be grating, even cloying. Saramago describes the elephant as “this pachyderm…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.” In this and other attempts to establish a pleasant and preposterous manner, the result is often just a contrived circumlocution. Much of this language, in fact, has incomprehensible connotations for the story. Oft-repeated terms like “pachyderm” or, here, “proboscidean,” relate to a scientific mindset that otherwise plays no part in the novel. While Saramago’s style is pitch-perfect when he describes the Portuguese court, elsewhere it becomes disjointed.

In addition to uncomfortably stilted prose, Saramago’s attempts at humor often fall flat. After Solomon kicks a priest who is attempting to exorcize him with holy water, Saramago describes how the man, “will always say that these apparently brutish animals are, in fact, so intelligent that, as well as having a smattering of Latin, they are also capable of distinguishing ordinary water from holy water.” This kind of unsuccessful humor undermines the novel’s more serious moments.

The book’s most serious flaw comes in its relentless description of the minor social and physical perils of the trip across Europe, and the resulting lack of depth in each character. The closest any character comes to real development is the nameless platoon leader, who exclaims with evident irony, “I’m just a captain of cavalry who has undergone some inner change during this journey.” It seems that Saramago openly scorns the idea that his characters should undergo any kind of analysis or change during his story. Indeed, Subhro is one of the few characters to get a name, past, or multi-dimensional personality. This emptiness at the novel’s emotional core makes it impossible to become truly invested in any aspect of the story.

Without an overriding commitment to its ideas or characters, the center of Saramago’s final work must be this story of an elephant. The author is right in pointing out that “it isn’t every day an elephant appears in our lives”, and it was especially rare for the sixteenth-century Portuguese to enjoy one. But this observation, however fruitful in terms of whimsy, is skimpy in fictional substance.

—Staff writer Alexander E. Traub can be reached at atraub@college.harvard.edu.

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