I have such a crush on this book, I hardly know where to begin. I picked it up because Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature (although this wasn’t the book that won him the prize). Most of the writers I turn to have won something, although it’s typically the Hugo or Nebula, or some other more niche recognition. Reading Nobel winners’ novels is one of those things I felt like I should do because it would be good for me, not necessarily something I thought I would enjoy. I always expected that the works would be deep and thought-provoking, but I felt like this element would probably come at the expense of entertainment. I’m happy to say that, at least in this case, I was wrong.
How do I explain what makes this book so wonderful? The plot is fairly straightforward: the king of Portugal, regretting having bought an elephant named Solomon who doesn’t do all that much besides eat tons of forage, decides to foist it off on a relative, the prince of Austria, using the Austrian’s wedding as the excuse, because if an elephant doesn’t make a statement as a wedding present, what does? The mahout, Subhro, and a company of assorted military personnel are selected to escort Solomon to his new home, and so they proceed. There are of course multiple encounters with people in various villages along the way, but that’s not why I’m all warm and pink about this book. (Also, while I stand by the fact that the plot is straightforward, when I see it summarized I am struck by its oddities, as well).
What makes The Elephant’s Journey so magical is the way it’s told. Saramago clearly has so much fun playing with what it means to tell a story that it’s impossible not to catch his enthusiasm. There is the moment, for example, when a character disappears—plof—and Saramago is moved to dwell a moment on what a lovely thing onomatopoeia is. “Imagine if we had to describe in detail a person suddenly disappearing from view,” he says. “It would have taken at least ten pages. Plof.” There’s so much playfulness and curiosity in the writing, and I love how Saramago invites us into easy familiarity with him in his act of putting down the story. The other amazing thing is how The Elephant’s Journey looks at what is strange and what is normal. The elephant, Solomon, himself is odd and mundane at the same time–prized by royalty in two countries for being exotic, but spending most of his time eating, sleeping, and leaving steaming messes for his keepers to clean up. Even the people in the villages the company passes through get used to the idea of an elephant in a matter of days. The book often treats human relationships as stranger things, such as the hilarious, absurd exchange between two military officials who essentially want the same thing, but escalate a dramatic list of bluffs, boasts and threats to ensure they can have it on their terms, or Saramago’s shudder at a royal husband who would go on to impregnate his wife sixteen times: “Monstrous.”
Of course, Solomon is the heart of the story, as is fitting for any story that even contains an elephant, and much more so when it stars one. It is beautiful to see the ties between him and the people around him, and to feel all the subtle transformations, and to feel subtly transformed.
This books is ideal for: people who love elephants, people who love stylistic playfulness, Portuguese lit fans, “serious” readers who still want pleasure in their reading