“There is the elephant. Although he is smaller than his african relatives, one can still see, beneath the layer of dirt covering him, the fine figure nature had in mind when she created him. Why is the animal so dirty, asked the king........I want this animal washed right now.......
The elephant’s pleasure was plain to see. The water and the scrubbing motion of the broom must have awoken in him some pleasant memory, a river in india, the rough trunk of a tree, and the proof was that, for as long as the washing lasted, a good half hour, he did not move from the spot, standing firm on his powerful legs, as if he were hypnotised................where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendour. A somewhat relative splendour, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a greyish coffee colour, and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu.”
It is with these words that Jose Saramago introduces the hero of the story – the elephant, and it is in a similar vein that he takes the story forward, of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna.
I must admit, that it was the title, which first attracted me. Any book with ‘journey’ in the title grabs my attention at once! Besides, this one had an elephant in it! The author was someone I had never heard of, I am sorry to say, for he was a Nobel Laureate!
Jose Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922, in the small rural village of Azinhaga. He came to prominence as a writer late in life, when he was in his fifties. In spite of his late start, he has a huge number of works to his credit, ranging from plays, poetry, short stories, non fiction, and over a dozen novels! All his original works are in Portuguese, and they have been translated into more than forty languages. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 and he died in June 2010.
The Elephant’s Journey was one of his last books, translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. The translation won the 2011 Oxford – Weidenfeld Translation Prize.
Saramago takes up the story of an elephant, taken from the Portuguese colony in Goa to Lisbon. It is left there, forgotten by one and all, till the King, Dom Joāo III decides to send the elephant as a wedding gift for the Hapsburg archduke, Maximilian. The king’s men deliver the elephant to the archduke at Valladolid in Spain, from where the elephant and his mahout continue their journey by the seas, rivers, roads and the dangerous crossings over the Alps, to eventually reach Vienna.
The book is based on the actual journey made by an elephant in 1551 during the reign of the Porutguese king, Dom Joāo III. But in Saramago’s hands, the journey goes well beyond the approximately 3000 Kms traversed by the elephant and his mahout. With the journey as a backdrop, he succeeds in telling us more about the situation in sixteenth century Europe than we learnt in our history books at school. The elephant arouses awe among the people who see him on the way. After all, they have never seen an elephant and have no idea what it looks like!
The king chooses the elephant as a gift for the simple reason that it is huge, and also because it is completely non-religious in nature. After all, this is the time of conflict in the church. The catholic Portuguese king has no intention of offending his Lutheran cousin. However, the church and religion keep cropping up all over the book. Such as the time when the commanding officer asks the mahout Subhro, about his religion –
“......I seem to recall you telling me that you were a Christian, And I recall answering, more or less, sir, more or less, What does that mean, are you or are you not a Christian, Well, I was baptised in india when I was a child, And then, Then, nothing, replied the mahout with a shrug, So you never practised your faith, Sir, I was not called, they must have forgotten about me, ......”
And the mahout goes on to tell the commanding officer stories about Ganesha. When asked if he will go back to India, he replies –
“No, I’m not an indian any more, And yet you obviously know a lot about Hinduism, More or less, sir, more or less, Why do you say that, Because it is all words and only words, and beyond the words there’s nothing,...”
Comparison of the elephant with Ganesha, the elephant headed god, first causes some concern in a small village, where the priest is called to exorcise the demon in the elephant, and much later, nearing Vienna, another priest approaches the mahout asking him to make the elephant kneel before a church, thus performing a miracle for the townsmen! Religion and politics of the time continue to appear all through the story, making it all the more interesting.
Every character in the story is so beautifully developed. The king, who feels guilty for sending off an elephant he has forgotten about, wishes to visit it once, and then worries whether the elephant is a good enough present, and if the archduke will like it. The queen, who is the one to suggest sending the elephant as a gift, but does not want to know if the elephant has left or not, so that she will not feel guilty about it. The commanding officer is a strict master when it comes to his men, but who is ready to listen to the mahout and his ideas. He is fixed in his religious beliefs, but is open to hearing and learning about other beliefs too; and of course, the archduke, whose first thought is to rename both, the elephant and his mahout – Solomon becomes Suleiman, and Subhro becomes Fritz –
“....its an easy name to remember, besides there are an enormous number of fritzes in austria already, so you’ll be one among many, but the only one with an elephant...”
But apart from Solomon, who, of course, is the main character in the story, it is Subhro the mahout who takes centre stage. He has seen the excitement the elephant first generated on arrival in Lisbon, and he has seen the elephant forgotten with time. He is ready to move with Solomon wherever he is taken, after all, that is what he has been taught to do. However, he has his own ideas, and good observation skills. It is he who thinks of a way to get the oxen moving faster, and is confident enough to go to the commanding officer with his ideas. For a man who has stayed in the shadow of the elephant all these years, the short duration of the journey seems to awake all his latent energies and thought processes. He has new ideas all along the way – except that not everyone listens to him, as the commanding officer does. He tries to convince the archduke not to change his name, doesn’t succeed, so blithely accepts his fate – after all, what is in a name?
The journey gets more exciting as the procession passes over the Alps. The elephant from the hot climes of India braves the snow and sleet to reach the destination he is intended for. And yet, his life in Vienna is short – he dies less than two years later. Subhro, with his salary, and a generous tip, makes his way to Lisbon, seated on a donkey, but he disappears from the pages of history, for it is never known what happened to him then. The story ends as it begins, in the Portuguese king’s bedchamber – with the king informing the queen of Solomon’s fate.
In the hands of a lesser author, the book would have been just the story of the elephant’s journey. As I read the book, I realised why the author won a Nobel Prize – he has woven together so many strands of history, religion, mythology, beliefs, faith, and life in sixteenth century Europe to create a work that binds it all so beautifully that the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish.
But more than anything he does it in a style I have never seen before! Jose Saramago writes without seeing the need for full stops or capitals.... and he seems to love commas. There are absolutely no quotation marks all through the book, though at least we see capitals and full stops here and there. When I first took up the book, I was surprised, to say the least! I spent some time trying to find the longest sentence in the book, but there were so many contenders that I was forced to give up! I even showed it to Samhith, who was thrilled to see someone write without using capitals for proper nouns! And his expression was worth seeing when I told him that the author was a Nobel Laureate! Considering all this, I wondered how I would manage to read through, but I am so happy to say that I was enthralled – he weaves together words so perfectly without any regard for the rules drilled into us at school, but it is done in such a beautiful way that we can’t really complain! No wonder he won the Nobel Prize! It is, after all, not about punctuation, but literature! As I told Samhith, you first have to learn the rules of writing, but when you learn to write, and write well, the rules really don’t matter!
Don’t agree with me? Go read the book and find out why I think so!
P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India.