The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

A review from 2010, of a book I very much enjoyed.

‘Well, it isn’t every day that an elephant appears in our lives.’

In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave the Archduke Maximilian of Austria an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked on by ordinary people as well as by scholars and historians. From this, José Saramago has crafted a delightful short novel.

Solomon and his keeper, Subhro, have been living a dismal existence forgotten in a corner of the palace grounds. When King João and his queen decide that the elephant would be an appropriate wedding gift, Subhro is given two new suits of clothes and Solomon an overdue scrub.

Solomon and Subhro travel together on foot from Lisbon to Valladolid, to Catalonia, by sea to Genoa, on to Venice, over the Alps, arriving at Innsbruck on the feast day of Epiphany in 1552, before continuing by barge down the rivers Inn and Danube toward Vienna. For part of the journey, they are accompanied by the Archduke, his new wife and the royal guard. The Archduke renames Subhro ‘Fritz’ and Solomon proves himself to be a natural sailor. Together, the party traverses a continent dived by both the Reformation and civil wars. They travel through the cities of Northern Italy, including Trento where the Council of Trent is in session. They travel at an unhurried pace, largely dictated by Solomon. And wherever they go, they encounter people with various interpretations of the sudden appearance of an elephant in their lives.

‘Like magicians, elephants have their secrets.’

One of my favourite passages involves Subhro discussing religion with the Portuguese captain. The discussion is overheard by peasants from a nearby village who, following what they have heard come to a conclusion which they share with their priest: ‘God is an elephant, father.’ The priest replies that ‘God is in all his creatures.’ This leads to an argument which the priest settles by promising to exorcise the elephant. The next day, he pretends to exorcise the elephant but because he is only pretending (or so we might believe) the elephant punishes him – by kicking him gently.

This is a delightful and funny story.

‘Given time, everything in the universe will dovetail perfectly with everything else.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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