'The Elephant's Journey' well worth time

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 21, 2011

“The Elephant’s Journey,” by José Saramago. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2010. 205 pp. $24.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
I toyed with the idea of writing this review in the style of José Saramago, whose novel, “The Elephant’s Journey,” is a wry, eclectic read.
But Saramago doesn’t break up his paragraphs very often. He doesn’t capitalize names, like subhro, the elephant trainer, and he doesn’t mark dialogue with quotation marks, but I’d have to use quotation marks to show you and that would just get confusing.
Nevertheless! Yes, nevertheless, this is a totally engaging little novel from a Noble Prize winner, his last, sadly, as he died in 2010. It’s based on a little-known event from the annals of Saramago’s beloved Portugal. Readers can almost taste his disdain for Europe.
Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998 and left a number of novels translated into English, which, sadly again, I do not recognize: “The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy,” “All the Names,” “The Cave” (no, not the one you’re thinking about) “Death with Interruptions.”
But now I have a reason to try those and a new author — to me — to enjoy his particular style, reminiscient of the “archy and mehitabel” books by Don Marquis from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Marquis claimed archy, the roach, typed them all by diving into the typewriter keys, making capitalization impossible. Funny stuff, observations on life, just like this novel.
Saramago’s style is full of long asides, addresses to the reader, satirical remarks, telling observations and foolish characters.
“The Elephant’s Journey” is a fairy tale for adults who appreciate all those devices and can enjoy poking fun at pomposity and pecadillos.
Set in 1551, it’s the story of King Joao III of Portugal and his good queen; Archduke Maximilian of Austria; Subhro, the mahout (elephant handler); and Solomon, the elephant.
King Joao decides Maximilian really needs the elephant as a wedding gift. Poor thing has been relegated to a dirty stall on the palace grounds. Of course, Subhro must go with him to guide him on the long journey from Portugal to Austria.
This will involve leagues and leagues on foot (a league was roughly 3 miles), a trip across the Mediterranean, burning heat, blinding sun, snow, wind and arduous crossings of the Isarco and Brenner passes in the Alps.
“Now that the snow had redoubled in intensity, although this is not to say that one was a consequence of the other, the road had grown steeper, as if it were weary of dragging itself along on the flat and wanted to ascend to the skies, even if only to one of its lower levels.”
It also includes a couple of miracles, when Solomon bows before a superstitious priest and saves a child from certain death and numerous other adventures, both physical and mental.
Subhro was briefly ingratiated with his king in Portugal. Maximilian — not so much. He renames Subhro Fritz and Solomon, Sulieman. Fritz’s clever talk and fawning don’t play well for Max.
Minor characters along the way include the cuirassiers, mounted soldiers who accompany the caravan, an assortment of hosts for the traveling party, but mainly, it’s Subhro/Fritz and Solomon/Sulieman.
Solomon behaves like a gentleman most of the time, even when he’s traveling with a coating of ice on his back. He does get tempermental in the heat, stopping often for water, snacks and rest.
“So we shouldn’t imagine him with a napkin tied around his neck and sitting down to eat his three square meals a day, no, an elephant eats what he can, as much as he can and where he can, and his guiding principle is not to leave anything behind that he might need later.”
Solomon is the novel, always present, always the subject of the narrative, walking along, just doing as he’s asked.
Subhro, the clever mahout and skillful manipulator, takes Saramago inside his head, and inside Solomon’s head.
Go along on “The Elephant’s Journey.” It won’t take long and Saramago will encourage you with the flow of his words and his imagination.