I am a Saramago fan, no doubt. The lack of punctuation, sparse use of character names, and paragraphs that run on for pages can detract many readers, but Saramago’s use of these stylistic conceits lend his novels a sense of oral storytelling spoken through the voice of a narrator that is whimsically self-aware that an entertaining tale can effectively express tongue-in-cheek philosophical motives. As an author, Saramago isn’t shy towards inserting himself into the narrative, and he will openly acknowledge within the text of his story that certain facets of the story are his own creation for the sake of moving the story along.
These stylistic characteristics are apparent in the The Elephant’s Journey. While reading this book I imagined it as a perfect bedtime story, best suited to be read aloud to a child. It is one of the more humorous Sarramago novels I’ve read so far, never laugh out loud funny, but often eliciting a smirk across my face during my reading. Although I found The Elephant’s Journey amusing, this isn’t the best of Saramago’s work. It isn’t profoundly touching like The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis nor does it stretch the limits of possibility to reveal the paradox of humanity’s ugly beauty such as Saramago does with his masterful works Blindness and Death with Interruptions. The Elephant’s Journey is a much simpler tale with less ambitious aims. It is only because this book is merely a simple tale do I concede that it isn’t Saramago at his best, but Saramago at his less inspiring is still a lot better than most authors could ever dream of achieving.
The plot is centered on the journey of the elephant Solomon, from Lisbon to Vienna. Solomon travels this journey first with an armory of Portuguese militia, then with an armory of Austrian militia because he is a wedding gift from the King of Portugal to the Austrian Archduke Maximilian. Apparently, this tale is based on true events with Saramago imagining all the action that surrounds the journey of the pachyderm wedding gift. Throughout the journey there is plenty of social commentary regarding Christian culture in 16th century Europe, such as the dialogue noted by the Indian Subrho’s questioning of Jesus’ wisdom to expel the demons of Legion into the swine that run off the cliff since the demons are eternal and the unlucky swine are killed only for an unfortunate dramatic effect. The journey is also full of farcical events: the Portuguese and Austrian militia come nearly to war due to the thickheaded pride of their commanding officers, the mahout Subrho convinces his entourage to rest and eat at the elephant’s whim, and Solomon enacts a “miracle” by kneeling before a basilica of St. Anthony.
One notable element about this book is that the entire journey is centered around the elephant Solomon, an unspeakable animal, that is likened to a godly creature. He is noble and silent whereas the humans that surround him are bumbling and foolish, often misunderstanding each other and their intentions. The elephant’s journey is less about the elephant than it is about the stunted journeys of mankind.
“The skeptics are quite right when they say that the history of humanity is one long succession of missed opportunities. Fortunately, thanks to the inexhaustible generosity of the imagination, we erase faults, fill in lacunae as best as we can, forge passages through blind alleys that will remain stubbornly blind, and invent keys to doors that have never even had locks.” (177)