The National Catholic Review
Gerald T. Cobb

When the Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago died last June at the age of 87, he left his readers a farewell gift in the form of a captivating novel, The Elephant’s Journey. This modest but emotionally quite moving tale unfolds as Saramago wistfully re-imagines a historical event of 1551, when King John III of Portugal presented to Archduke Maximilian of Austria an Indian elephant as a belated wedding gift.

Saramago came upon the story of the elephant quite by accident during a dinner with a friend in Salzburg, when he learned about the remarkable journey of the animal from Lisbon to Vienna. In previous books Saramago has used rather far-fetched premises to ground his plot, such as the idea that everyone had lost their ability to see or that people had stopped dying. In The Elephant’s Journey Saramago employs a more plausible but no less interesting framework for reflecting on his favorite topics: the frailty and foibles of human nature and the mind-boggling wrongheadedness of religious and secular bureaucracies.

The novel opens with King John’s wife hesitating at her husband’s suggestion about giving the elephant away: “Deep inside, which is where the contradictions of the self do battle, she felt a sudden sadness at the thought of sending Solomon off to such distant lands and into the care of strangers.” The queen apparently had no compunction about the way Solomon was originally removed from his homeland and carried off to distant Portugal and entrusted into the care of her court.

Under Saramago’s deft hand the journey of the elephant and his keeper, Subhro, accompanied by a large retinue, becomes a metaphor for any individual or social group’s progress through life. The elephant signifies the ineffable and the strange. As one character comments, “while I can more or less understand a cat or a dog, I can’t understand an elephant.” Solomon/Suleiman is a compelling symbol of otherness for the villagers who see the procession pass by. We are those villagers, and for Saramago the elephant serves as a classic example of a hermeneutical paradox—we move through life as blind persons grasping different parts of the elephant and reporting our own confident versions of reality.

In the elephant’s epic journey from Lisbon to Vienna the travelers face threats from wolves, weather and treacherous terrain in the Alps. In the middle of the journey the Archduke takes possession of the animal and changes his name from Solomon to Suleiman; he also changes his keeper’s name from Subhro to Fritz. This change from the name of a Jewish wisdom figure to the name of an Ottoman sultan suggests Maximilian’s desire to have a kept animal named after his political adversary. Saramago sees rulers as twisted versions of Adam and Eve, who assign names arbitrarily and thus live in an illusory paradise of their own creation.

Solomon/Suleiman performs a number of seemingly extraordinary feats along the way. His trumpeting, for example, helps a lost man wandering in dense fog find his way back to camp. When a young girl, to the horror of onlookers, runs into the elephant’s path, the elephant gently snatches her up to safety. These actions, combined with references to the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, lend Suleiman something of a divine aura.

When locals misunderstand an overheard remark and tell a local priest that the elephant is god, the priest tries to exorcise Solomon, but out of laziness brings ordinary water instead of holy water. When the elephant interrupts his ritual and nudges him to an ignominious fall to the ground, the priest concludes that somehow the elephant knew the water was not sanctified. Saramago takes delight in pointing out religious duplicity and delusion.

While a number of Saramago’s books were tinged with an overly strident dismissal of religion, his approach softens somewhat in this book. He seems unable to leave behind the faith of the church he holds in rather low esteem. The novel’s epigraph is telling: “In the end, we always arrive at the place where we are expected.” Saramago’s phrasing here—not “where we expect” but “where we are expected”—mischievously suggests the question, “Expected by whom?” It is an example of what might be called the theistic passive voice, implying that beyond death someone (God?) expects us. As theological claims go, this is highly understated, even veiled. But it may suggest Saramago’s interest in teleological and theological matters as he approached the end of his life.

Saramago will be remembered primarily for his unique and endearing narrative voice, which inserts itself into the novel frequently to express qualms and uncertainties, or simply to let the reader know that the author is never far from the text itself. This lends a metafictional liveliness to the text, because the narrator appears to be just as fickle and unpredictable as the elephant, expressing his sentiments and his authorial qualms and dilemmas. Saramago stops just short of saying something like, “Dear reader, at this point I must take a coffee break.” His narrative voice is garrulous, fallible and always charming.

The novel’s final signature gesture is left for the queen, as she closes herself in her room to weep at the death of the noble animal. The reader cannot help feeling something of the same sentiment about the passing of Saramago, a literary giant who himself journeyed away from Portugal as a man of gigantic gifts of the imagination, creating a truly unusual body of fiction.

Gerald T. Cobb, S.J., is associate professor in the English department at Seattle University.