Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: The Elephant's Journey, by Jose Saramago

In 1551, an elephant named Solomon, as a gift from the king of Portugal to the archduke of Austria, traveled from Lisbon, Portugal to Vienna, Austria, crossing, in the meantime, Spain and Italy, also passing through the treacherous Alps. If you were to read about this event in a history book, that's probably the only information you will learn about it. The gifted Portuguese author, Jose Saramago, however, transforms the event into a 200 page novel. Most histories are impersonal stories that feature as heroes the rulers of a nation and clump the populace into one large mass that acts and thinks the same. Saramago protests against that type of history and instead dives into the human aspects. Here his main character, besides Solomon the elephant, is not King Joao III of Portugal, or Archduke Maximilian of Austria, but an Indian mahout, named Subhro, who is Solomon's keeper.

This is a history that is perhaps unknown by most, but especially by those in the United States, whose education on Portuguese and Austrian historical figures is very limited. It might seem odd to give, as a gift, an elephant, especially in a time when transporting such a creature over a long distance would have been very difficult. Yet the idea came from King Joao III, who was concerned that his wedding gift to Archduke Maximilian four years prior was insufficient, and now that Maximilian was about halfway between Lisbon and Vienna, in Valladolid, Spain, the king decided to consider a better gift. Thus the story of Solomon's travels begins, at the queen's suggestion, because the poor elephant has just been sitting around and doing nothing but eating for the two years since he had arrived from India.

Once the archduke accepts the gift, travel plans are made and strategies are plotted. The Portuguese, at the helm of an army captain, will take the elephant all the way to Valladolid, and from there the Austrians will take over. Taking care of the elephant is the job of Subhro, whose Indian identity provides him both with an air of mystique and an appearance of inferiority in the eyes of the Portuguese. Part of the difficulty of the journey, early on, was what pace the group should travel at. Those on horseback, such as the soldiers, would no doubt have the ability, and desire, to travel at a faster pace. However, Subhro, on his elephant, would have no choice but to move at the slow pace of the elephant, who also needed to rest for naps. Even slower were the oxen who carried Solomon's food and water. It was Subhro who keenly observed the slowest should set the pace so nobody would get separated, and that Solomon's needs should be put first, lest the group wanted to deal with an angry elephant.

What makes Saramago's tale so interesting is the day-to-day details he goes into, putting the reader into the event as though we, too, were traveling from Lisbon to Vienna. We listen to the conversations between Subhro and the commanding officer, who become good friends. We listen in on conversations between others who have no role to play in the story except to have been there at that moment. The little details Saramago notices helps bring everything to life. There are moments when the party stops at a town and the townspeople watch in awe as the only elephant they will ever see crosses their paths, and one can imagine that story being told to friends and children and grandchildren. In one instance, three men from a small town overhear Subhro describing the Hindu god, Ghanesh, who has an elephant head, and they mistakenly believe Solomon is God. When they tell their pastor, the pastor insists that the elephant is not God but has a demon inside it and decides to perform an exorcism. Such views seem narrow to us now, but the lives of these people were isolated and this was their reality.

Saramago has a tendency to go off on tangents, often referring to a phrase in his writing to cause readers to think about it in a new light. Sometimes these comments are self-referential, even self-deprecating, in order to bring your attention to the fact that you are reading a book that is from the point of view of another person and is not an objective work. Saramago particularly likes to talk about the trouble of writing and reading a history (this is particularly true in The History of the Siege of Lisbon). The trouble is, we don't really know what happened, so we should be wary of trusting every word written in history books. As an example, Jose Saramago isn't quite sure whether the Portuguese King Sebastian died on the first attack of a battle, or the second, or from an illness on the eve of battle. None of us were there, and records were less readily available then than now.

But Saramago revels in the fact that he is not a historian in the traditional sense, but a fiction writer. He uses liberties, for instance, in providing names for characters, and even in making up dialogues and getting into the minds of characters whose minds we have no access to because they left no journals behind. This helps provide a human touch, and in many ways shows just how little humanity has changed over the course of existence. For example, one can easily imagine a modern dialogue being carried in the same manner as one that happens in the book, when spectators debate whether or not the elephant, getting ready to ride on a boat, will either sink it or tumble over the rail because of his size. The imaginations of these people aren't much different from our own, when we make predictions about how things might go wrong. We also get into the mind of Subhro, who finds himself at odds with Archduke Maximilian, as he daydreams about rescuing the Archduchess in order to get back on good terms with the Archduke. Not only is Saramago making an astute observation about people, but he is also very cleverly putting us on a level playing field, so to speak, with these characters from over five hundred years ago.

Saramago writes in a style that I have gotten used to from reading many of his books, but that may be difficult for others to get into. He writes using long paragraphs, sometimes going on for pages, and uses punctuation by his own rules. Periods are scarce, and sometimes commas are used in their stead. He also fails to capitalize proper names, so Subhro is subhro, and even the king is king joao. Most interestingly of all is his style of writing dialogue. Not only does he not use quotes, which isn't that unusual of a practice, but he does not use paragraph breaks, which is pretty unusual. He separates speakers by using a comma at the end of the speaker's sentence, and then capitalizes the first word of the next speaker's sentence. This may cause you to have to re-read dialogue to make sure you don't get mixed up, but it actually flows fairly easily once you get the hang of it.

And it doesn't really matter how somebody writes as long as they are able to do so competently. And Saramago writes more than competently, but exceptionally. He writes with the intent of showing humanity in a positive light. He fails to see anyone as completely evil - even those who could be viewed as antagonists, such as Archduke Maximilian, have their redeeming qualities, and nobody in his stories is stupid. They are who they are, and everyone, even the lowest of the low, is a philosopher. In this case we also see that animals may not be so different. They, like us, want to survive and lead a happy life. Saramago never pretends to know what Solomon is thinking, and is always careful to point this out. Yet the animal does extraordinary things, for whatever reason. One of the most powerful moments I have ever read occurs when Solomon says goodbye to a group of porters by touching his trunk to their hands in a sort of handshake. These porters are so touched by Solomon's gesture that some of them burst into tears. It's as though Solomon, just like the author of the novel, wants to make sure these people don't go without realizing how appreciated they are. Perhaps we could all benefit by being a little more like Solomon. We are, after all, struggling to survive and to be happy in the same world as everyone else, high or low.

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