The Elephant’s Journey

Written by José Saramago
Review by Lucinda Byatt

It is hard to know which sentiment dominated my reading of this book: sadness at the passing of such a great author, or delight in this whimsical but wise novella, his last work. The circumstances that led Saramago to write the book are serendipitous: he chanced to eat at a restaurant called “The Elephant” in Salzburg, where he noticed small wooden carvings depicting the real journey made by an Indian elephant in 1551 from Lisbon to Vienna. Saramago’s realisation that “there could be a story in this” is pure understatement: he offers us not only a story but an entire philosophy.

When King Joao III decides to give Solomon to the Hapsburg archduke, Maximilian, life for the elephant and his mahout Subhro changes forever. The Austrian Archduke decrees that Subhro be known as Fritz, and Solomon becomes Suleiman, although to his mahout he could just as well as be the god Ganesh. Saramago’s prose flows steadily, with a minimum of punctuation, echoing the ambling pace of the elephant across the plains of Castille, and then north from Genoa and over the Alps.

The story reveals flashes of comedy, the warmth of Subhro’s compassion and a profound understanding of human frailty and fate. Theology was ever present in Reformation Europe, and when Solomon obligingly performs a “miracle” in Padua by kneeling before the cathedral to please the delegates at the Council of Trent, the protestant archduke is less than impressed, especially when he finds that “Fritz” has made a small fortune on the side. However, even the archduke is eventually won over by the gentle pachyderm and the total dedication of the man who cares for him. This is a delightful book that will become a classic.