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Review: ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ by José Saramago

Illustration: Tomiris

Illustration: Tomiris

The Elephant’s Journey was first published as A Viagem do Elefante in 2008, translated and published in English in 2010. It is the second-to-last novel published during Saramago’s lifetime. Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922, and published his first text in 1947, and his body of work includes novels, poems and plays. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, and is considered to be one of the most important European writers of the last century. Saramago died in 2010, having published over twenty-five works during his lifetime.

The Elephant’s Journey is the second novel I’ve read by Portuguese writer José Saramago, and he is fast becoming a favourite of mine. Although I am sadly unable to read his works in the original language, even in translation his writing style is distinct and strong. Like his earlier novel Blindness, this novel is written almost entirely without breaks in the text, and without the punctuation of direct speech. While neither technique is particularly innovative, Saramago uses both effectively to draw the reader further into the narrative he builds around the novel’s protagonist, the elephant Solomon (later, Suleiman).

Or rather, the elephant is the supposed protagonist of the novel. Although it is named after him and traces his journey across much of western Europe, the reader only encounters him through the second protagonist of the novel: Subhro (later, Fritz), the mahout whose job it is to look after Solomon. For me, this was one aspect of the novel that I had trouble with. I began the novel with the expectation that Saramago would retell the journey of the elephant with sensitivity and subtly, using the animal’s experience of the lands and people it encounters as a means to reflect on human nature. Perhaps my expectation would have been less fruitful as a novel than what Saramago actually wrote in The Elephant’s Journey. His novel is instead highly reflective, and he uses Solomon’s travels as a means to explore the different relationships people can build and break; Saramago focuses on political, professional and fraternal relationships.

Both Subhro and Solomon are the only two characters who are not typical members of the historic European courtly culture which Saramago describes in the novel. They are both from India, and were brought to Portugal by the king a few years before the narrative of the novel begins. Throughout the novel, questions of race, religion and location are touched upon but never fully explored. And yet, by the end of the novel, the narrative focus has shifted from the Portuguese king and members of his court, and is instead almost entirely dominated by Subhro. I am still uncertain what this may point to altogether, but feel it is a key aspect of the novel itself with deserves further thought.

Quieter and more reflective than some of Saramago’s other texts, I would argue that it is well-worth reading. Saramago engages with themes of the state and politics, which seem to dominate his writing, but to an overall subtler effect than some of his works.

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