A very likeable character called p ro de alc ova carneiro features impressively in the early pages of this tale He is secretary of state to the king of Portugal and his thinly veiled ironic responses to the monarch s rather dim questions cause the reader to worry for his safety we see him being thrown from the nearest high rock if he doesn t soon mend his ways Although p ro is a master of nuance, the equal of many a great Shakespearian character, he doesn t merit a capital letter in this story characters names are rarely written with capitals in Saramago s books Nevertheless, the reader begins to hope in the early pages that p ro will play a capital part in the tale But Saramago quickly dampens any such hopes concerning the very patient and clever p ro, whom we may not see again, although perhaps we will, because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.
With such convoluted phrases does Saramago challenge all of our presumed ideas about narrative and its conventions from the very beginning of this story he takes common notions, clich s almost, such as the assumption that events may be predicted or predictable, and quickly turns them, and us, inside out and upside down The reader is wrong footed from the start here, not knowing who the main character will be in this account of the gifting of an elephant by the king of Portugal, Dom Jo o the third, to his cousin, Maximilian the second of Austria, in 1552.
If p ro can be dropped so easily, we wonder what fate awaits subhro, the clever mahout who tends the elephant, and whom the reader begins to see as the main character if, of course, the wise elephant called Solomon is not himself the main character soon after the dispensable p ro is left behind by the story in Lisbon along with the king, an equally dispensable character it seems, for there is a welcome democracy in this tale, at least at times Riding through Portugal, and then across Spain, boarding a ship to cross the Mediterranean, then onwards through Northern Italy, the Alps, Austria, all while perched on top of an elephant must have seemed like a royal position in those days Our subhro enjoys his status, high above the army of accompanying soldiers like a capital on the top of a column But since he is as clever as p ro, he doesn t take his temporary preeminent situation for granted, fearing every day, and every step of the journey that he will eventually be toppled, and end up where he really belongs, in the dust or the snow, whichever applies One particular slow day on the hazardous journey, a daydream temporarily carries subhro far off into the land of heroic deeds where he imagines himself being lauded by the entire Austrian court, but soon reality revealed itself to him exactly as it was, himself hunched on the elephant s back, almost invisible beneath the snow, the desolate image of the defeated conqueror, demonstrating yet again how close the tarpeian rock is to the capitoline hill, on the latter they crown you with laurels and from the former they fling you down, all glory vanished, all honour lost, to the place where you will leave your wretched bones.
So the uneasy feeling the reader experienced at the beginning of this tale is confirmed by Saramago s own words a fall from grace can come swiftly and no one, no matter how impregnable their position, can be certain of avoiding such a fall Saramago wrote this book quite late in his life and I wondered if he had doubts or regrets about what he had achieved in his writing career or if he worried about the security of his position as the leading Portuguese writer of the twentieth century I didn t wonder for long, as he went on to say 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 we can, forge passages through blind alleys that will remain stubbornly blind, and invent keys to doors that have never had locks.
Saramago is very good at inventing keys, and with them, he opens a succession of doors in the narrative I imagine him blithely doing the same throughout his life.
The quotes I ve included demonstrate many interesting features of Saramago s style, but this one in particular his ability to move seamlessly from he to they to you to we and back again And the we is sometimes the narrator and the reader, sometimes the narrator and the characters, so that we, the readers, eventually become absorbed into the narrative and the we comes to be narrator, characters and readers, all rolled up in one we are transformed in spite of ourselves, changed utterly on reading his words because Saramago believes in the transforming power of fiction It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.
Perhaps not an outright liar, but clever and inventive when it comes to filling in lacunae while describing the beauty of the mountains through which the elephant travels, and clearly never having visited the location as any writer worthy of the name would surely do he implies , Saramago wriggles neatly out of any precise description words fail me, he says instead, with his tongue placed firmly in his cheek.
So, if he is championing the fictional account of this factual journey over the historical one, he does it with an entire army of nods and winks So far, fritz as subhro is called by the Austrians has been a vital character at every turn, be it dramatic or comic, even at the risk of cutting a ridiculous figure whenever a pinch of the ludicrous was felt to be necessary or merely tactically advisable for the narrative, putting up with humiliations without a word of protest or a flicker of emotion, careful not to let it be known that without him, there would be no one to deliver the goods, or in this case, to take the elephant to Vienna.
Saramago delivers the goods to adopt his own clich he plays with clich s when it suits him This book is a feast of verbal treats from the end to the beginning where, like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the narrative opens with a conversation in a marital bed, a conversation in which a monarch worries that a fall from grace can come very swiftly .
Here is a wonderful story, especially, I think, if you have a deep connection to animals It is the story of Solomon the Elephant and his keeper, Subhro, and their journey as a gift from King Joao III of Portugal to his cousin Archduke Maximillian Hapsburgs in 1540 or so The voice is third person historical and wonderfully relaxed and unrushed It is a novelist s voice embellishing on historical fact It s hard to understand just why the archduke Maximilian should have decided to make such a journey at this time of year winter , but that is how it is set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost.
Omniscience is avoided This is especially evident in the narrator s refusal or inability to enter the thoughts of Solomon The animal is thus shown a certain respect and the limitations of the voice are clearly indicated We do not know what he Solomon is thinking, but, in the midst of these Alps, we can be sure of one thing, he is not a happy elephant.
As I read about the passage of the archduke and his cortege in their passage through the snowy Alps I was filled with foreboding That s how affecting the writing is here One is entirely taken up with the plight of this elephant, an animal of the tropics, being forced through a snowy rocky landscape Saramago uses a run on sentence style, stringing long passages together with commas, and disdaining standard capitalization This has the clever effect of slowing the reader down, almost as a caesura in verse, making one concentrate intently on how the language is deployed Saramago was both a Communist and a famous atheist His send up of the Catholic Church, its cynicism and hypocrisy is quite amusing and is by itself worth the price of the book Especially amusing is the miracle cynically wrought in Padua by an ecclesiastic of that city Solomon is coerced to kneel by the doors of the basilica, which puts the fear of God into the populace, which also kneels This story then precedes Solomon along his route The Archduke is not amused by the throngs of the pious One bit of interesting subtext occurs when the Archduke and his cortege make their way through the dangerous Brenner Pass For those familar with W.
G Sebald s The Rings of Saturn you know that the Brenner Pass is central to that book and the author offers some of his enigmatic photographs of it When Saramago s narrative reaches the Brenner pass, he begins to discuss the difficulties of descriptive writing, then says It s a shame that photography had not yet been invented in the sixteeth century, because the solution would have been easy as pie, we would simply have included a few photos from the period, especially if taken from a helicopter and readers would then have every reason to consider themselves amply rewarded and to recognize the extraordinary informative nature of our enterprise.
Is this a swipe at Sebald, who, according to some Saramago may have been one cheats by using photos It would certainly seem so but this is speculation Unless some lucky scholar hits paydirt, I m afraid we ll never know.
In , King Jo O III Of Portugal Gave Archduke Maximilian An Unusual Wedding Present An Elephant Named Solomon The Elephant S Journey From Lisbon To Vienna Was Witnessed And Remarked Upon By Scholars, Historians, And Ordinary People Out Of This Material, Jos Saramago Has Spun A Novel Already Heralded As A Triumph Of Language, Imagination, And Humor El Pa SSolomon And His Keeper, Subhro, Begin In Dismal Conditions, Forgotten In A Corner Of The Palace Grounds When It Occurs To The King And Queen That An Elephant Would Be An Appropriate Wedding Gift, Everyone Rushes To Get Them Ready Subhro Is Given Two New Suits Of Clothes And Solomon A Long Overdue ScrubAccompanied By The Archduke, His New Wife, And The Royal Guard, Our Unlikely Heroes Traverse A Continent Riven By The Reformation And Civil Wars They Make Their Way Through The Storied Cities Of Northern Italy Genoa, Piacenza, Mantua, Verona, Venice, And Trento, Where The Council Of Trent Is In Session They Brave The Alps And The Terrifying Isarco And Brenner Passes They Sail Across The Mediterranean Sea And Up The Inn River Elephants, It Turns Out, Are Natural Sailors At Last They Make Their Grand Entry Into The Imperial City The Elephant S Journey Is A Delightful, Witty Tale Of Friendship And Adventure Do You Know the Way to Pan Jos I m afraid whatever subtlety and charm this novel supposedly has was lost on me.
I normally like to read an author s work chronologically, rather than jump in at the end and work backwards or around I broke my rule in this case, and now I m left wondering why Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize Is this, his last novel before he died in 2010, another case of the Nobel Curse, where you never write another decent work after you get the big one Help me decide which of his novels to read next Please This novel was relentlessly linear There was no narrative arc that I could detect, unless you count the climb upwards through the Alps.
There were rarely two paragraphs on the same page The longest I recorded before I stopped counting was 12 pages Yet there was no apparent need for this longevity Sentences were just added together with no cumulative effect, dynamism or creative tension.
Saramago was perfectly competent at establishing the feel of 1551 era Portugal, but every now and again the third person narrative anachronistically mentionedall s well that ends well50 years before Shakespeare used the term, if you don t attribute it to John Heywood in 1546 , film, cameras andthe third waybetween capitalism and communism, without any apparent purpose or effect, other than to alienate me, the reader There were two or three occasions on which I grinned at some aside, but little of what I had expected from the blurb trumpeting its extremely funny and witty reflections For all my sifting, I ended up with too little gold in my pan.
Nor was there any character development that I could tell I loved the elephant, but even for him, it was no hero s journey though thankfully the denouement wasn t like slaughter for elephants He seemed to be as bored as me No wonder, like Jos himself, he died two years after the narrative ended I hope I m spared his fate.
SOUNDTRACK A Tribute to Jos Saramagohttps www.
com watch v 6zaHjMiguel Gon alves Mendes Jos e Pilar I have ideas for books, but she has ideas for life I don t know which is important Dionne Warwick Do You Know the Way to Pan Jos is a great big freewayPut a hundred down on a pachyderm,Turn your back on your accounting firmAnd you might find yourself on the wayTo Vienna, by barge, from Innsbruck.
Hey It s not my trip, it s in the book Do you know the way repeatThanks to Steve for the inspiration This review is dedicated to my school friend, Chrispy Chorizo.
shortly after he began writing the elephant s journey in 2007, jos saramago was stricken with pneumonia and would conclude the year hospitalized in lanzarote from complications a mere day after his discharge the following january, he resumed efforts on the novel, completing it in august 2008 hence the book s dedication for pilar, who wouldn t let me die, a tribute to his wife and translator of his works into spanish saramago would go on to finish another novel cain, to be published in english in 2011 before he passed away on the cusp of summer earlier this year at the age of 87 the elephant s journey is saramago s fictionalized account relating the true tale of an elephant given to archduke maximilian as a wedding gift from his uncle, king jo o III of portugal, and its triumphant voyage upon foot and ship from lisbon to vienna in 1551 how saramago became inspired to tell this particular story is as serendipitous as any of the fantastic plots he is famous for having created following a guest lecture at the university of salzburg, saramago s inquisitive nature, evident during a chance dinner at an austrian restaurant called the elephant, provided enough fodder for his imagination to begin churning he writes, certain unknown fates came together that night in the city of mozart in order that this writer would ask what are those carvings over there those carvings illustrated the elephant s remarkable sixteenth century journey across europe, and, thus, with the aid of some research, saramago s fifteenth novel was born.
based in historical fact though it may be, the elephant s journey is quintessential saramago storytelling at its finest the book was aptly rendered from the portuguese by margaret jull costa, the eighth consecutive novel of his she has translated in addition to her award winning english adaptations of fernando pessoa, javier mar as, and e a de queiroz many of the elements that have made his fiction so widely beloved are present, and, as such, both neophyte and devotee will find the book deeply rewarding while the protracted, picturesque sentences and lack of traditional punctuation that mark saramago s singular style are of course present, notable herein is his decision to forego the capitalization of proper nouns unless they occur at the beginning of a sentence perhaps because he chose to recast historical figures and places beyond the realm of recorded fact solomon the elephant later renamed suleiman is richly conceived, as is subhro, the elephant s mahout much of the charm of aaramago s characters rests in the lifelike manner in which he portrays them, often full of wisdom and hospitality, yet just as likely to commit an act of folly or selfishness his narration of their lives often reflects this duality, what a strange creature man is, so prone to terrible insomnias over mere nothings and yet capable of sleeping like a log on the eve of battle as with every novel, saramago often veers briefly from the narrative to muse upon the far reaching ramifications of human nature, history, culture, government, and religion strong in his convictions however often mischaracterized by the international press , he seldom strays into moralizing, but instead offers seemingly simple observations and truisms of everyday life people say a lot of things, and not all of them are true, but that is what human beings are like, they can as easily believe that the hair of an elephant, marinated in a little oil, can cure baldness, as imagine that they carry within them the one solitary light that will lead them along life s paths, even through mountain passes one way or another, as the wise old hermit of the alps once said, we will all have to die the elephant s journey finds saramago at his most playful and lighthearted though self described as a pessimist, little trace of his contrarian tendencies is to be found the overarching sense of adventure is what dominates the story, and however much hardship was endured whether by sailing to italy or crossing the austrian alps , the characters remain mostly good natured, aware as they are of both the import and novelty of their attempted feat even the occasional aside directed at the reader remains upbeat and spirited, it s hard to understand just why the archduke maximilian should have decided to make such a journey at this time of year, but that is how it s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost it must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself in truth, i say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar or a mahout, despite the hare brained fantasies to which, either by birth or profession, they seem to be prone after nearly a full calendar year, and some 1,800 or so miles over land and sea, the elephant and his entourage finally arrive in vienna with their destination reached, pachyderm, procession, and reader alike are enjoined in an exultation that from the onset may have seemed somewhat unlikely the elephant s journey is a fantastic story of determination, and, like so many of his novels, succeeds on many a level saramago, of all his many gifts for telling a compelling tale, ought to be remembered for his grace, his inimitable humor, and the resplendent humanity he brought to each of his works the portuguese government declared two days of mourning upon his death in june, and some 20,000 people attended his funeral while a controversial figure to many, he left behind an acclaimed and accomplished body of work including nearly two dozen works of poetry, drama, short stories, essays, journalism, diaries, a libretto, and a children s book all of which have yet to be translated into english jos saramago was long an important and respected figure in international letters, and with his death the world has lost a literary great the epigraph for the elephant s journey could not be any succinctly or aptly put in the end, we always arrive at the place where we are expected the sceptics 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 we can, forge passages through blind alleys that will remain stubbornly blind, and invent keys to doors that have never even had locks.
Yes, this is a book of historical fiction It is based on a true event in history In 1551, King Jo o III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present an elephant named Solomon The elephant s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people , this being a direct quote from the book description.
And yet this book is primarily a book of humor To be explicit, it is a book of ironic satire It is written with modern terminology We are not to analyze the appropriateness of the terminology These are NOT the expressions of the 1500s They are not meant to be Instead, we are meant to chuckle at the incongruence of our modern way of thinking and the historical events as they unfolded It is very funny, and I praise Saramago for his ability to make me laugh read this book to laugh, not to learn of an historical event.
I chose to listen to this book because it does not employ the normal rules of punctuation I do not like such writing Paragraphs and rules of punctuation help a reader understand what is being said Soooooo instead, I figured the narrator of this audio book could do the reading for me I can just sit back and enjoy the content If I had had to struggle through the reading myself, I am sure I would have given it less stars The narrator was excellent Her intonations were perfect She has earned her money It is worth paying a bit for the audio version than struggling through the written, never ending sentences That is what I think Do you want a sophisticated chuckle Listen to this book.