Triumph and Oblivion

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José Saramago’s posthumous novel The Elephant’s Journey is an exploration of the self—and a gift to his readers.

Emerging from the abundance of this season’s fall fiction is Solomon the elephant. A gift from a 16th century Portuguese king to his royal Austrian cousin, Solomon walks from Lisbon to Vienna with a vast entourage; as he makes his way through flatland heat and across mountain ice, Solomon illuminates the miracles and madness, the hopes and hypocrisies, of the humans around him.

In The Elephant’s Journey the Portuguese writer José Saramago gave Solomon a voice—but this book is no talking-animal fable. The royal cross-country trek is a historical reality; it happened in 1551, a fact learned by Saramago, who died earlier this year at age 87, when a professor friend took him to a restaurant called The Elephant, near the University of Salzburg. And it’s neither the elephant’s sentience nor the walk itself that form Saramago’s subject, but the dynamics around Solomon. People’s expectations of the elephant and their responses to his behavior undergird a multi-layered tale of border crossings.

Beginning in Portugal, moving through Spain into Italy and, finally, Austria, the caravan of porters and guards, food- and water-bearers, and the mahout Subhro, who balances high on Solomon’s back, crosses national frontiers, as well as those borders that grace no map: between the lived present and the remembered past; between those people born into privilege and those not; between the sensibilities of humans and those of animals. The omniscient narrator leapfrogs centuries as he describes the ancient journey, the commanding officer

was unaware that among his subordinates were two pigeon-fanciers, a term that did not exist at the time, except perhaps among initiates, but which was doubtless going around knocking at doors, with the absent-minded air affected by all new words, asking to be let in.

That words, for Saramago, a Nobel laureate, have such strong agency comes as no great surprise. Words’ force is seen most clearly when the Austrian archduke Maximilian, Solomon’s new owner, sets about changing not only the elephant’s name but also the mahout’s. Maximilian decrees that Solomon will henceforth be called Suleiman, and then confronts Subhro:

Your name is hard to pronounce, So I have been told, sir, No one in Vienna will be able to understand it, That will be my misfortune, sir, But there is a remedy, from now on you will be called Fritz. Fritz, said Subhro in a pained voice, Yes, it’s an easy name to remember.

Tellingly, it is Solomon who sees others’ true nature, through his own capacity for thought and emotion. As Solomon prepares to say goodbye to the Portuguese porters who had accompanied him to a certain juncture along the road, some of the men well up with emotion. And Solomon sees them, in ways that depart from the shuttered gaze of the novel’s royals and elites:

The elephant treated [one man] with particular indulgence. He touched the man’s head and shoulders with his trunk, bestowing on him caresses that seemed almost human, such was the gentleness and tenderness implicit in every movement. For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our code of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.

For all of Solomon’s exotic appeal, for his successive royal owners he’s a novelty, a remedy for boredom. In Portugal, he had languished mostly alone—except for the company of Subhro—for two years after his arrival from Goa. On the road, even a villager is nonchalant, remarking, “There’s not much to an elephant really. The others agreed, When you’ve walked around him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.”

Asked what he will do once he and Solomon arrive in Vienna, Subhro replies, “Probably the same as in Lisbon, nothing very much, there’ll be a lot of applause, a lot of people crowding the streets, and then they’ll forget all about him, that’s the law of life, triumph and oblivion.” Yet it is through Subhro, who never strays far from his charge even in sleep, that we come to grasp most thoroughly who Solomon is.

Saramago’s novels rarely reveal their brilliance through plot, and The Elephant’s Journey lacks the narrative energy of earlier works like Blindness and Death with Interruptions. At times, the book seems to move at the same pace as Solomon, plodding through the Alps. Still, it’s the tension between Solomon-as-beast and Solomon-as-genuine-self that gives this novel its freshness and force. The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s final gift to his readers, and to prolong one’s immersion in his meandering, minimally punctuated sentences is a good thing. There’s joy to be found in the passages that are incomparably Saramago. They are plentiful.

Barbara J. King teaches anthropology at the College of William and Mary. At Amboseli National Park in Kenya she studied baboons, but gazed frequently at the elephants. Her latest book is Being With Animals. Read her Friday Animal Blog here—your comments are welcome. More from this author →