Jean Louis’s Vacation Fiction Reading
(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Nobel Prize winner Saramago is known for the startling ideas which form the basis of his novels such as “Blindness”, and “The Other.” In “The Elephant’s Journey” Saramago tells the novelized true story of an unusual wedding gift. In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal decided to give Archduke Maximilian of Austria the unique gift of an elephant named Solomon.
The novel is a road story, which follows the travels of Solomon, his mahout Subhro and Portugese and Austrian caravans which accompany and guide the precious wedding gift from Lisbon to Vienna. Throughout the story, we meet a cast as vast as the landscape. International politics are explored as are military bravado and the single-mindedness of European royalty.
Saramago’s novel crosses back and forth across European history and meditates on the changeability of language and idiom. The wisdom of his elephantine Solomon is explored as is the immigrant vision of Subhro the mahout.
As in his other novels, Saramago’s writing requires a little more effort from the reader than might be needed for many contemporary writers. But this is not to say that this journey is not without charms and rewards. Published near the end of his life, this novel reveals Saramago at the height of his novel writing power. For the reader, a very quirky European story is a delight to be savoured.