The Elephant’s Journey

Review of José Saramago, The Elephant’s Journey, translsated by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). Published in PopMatters (28 November 2010).

The late Portuguese writer José Saramago was a master at combining the fantastic with the banal, the metaphoric with the everyday. There’s always a sense in his prose that, whatever the story he might be telling us, there are a multitude of stories framing it, running alongside it, or visible just beyond its borders. Saramago wants us to know that those stories, which are sometimes really observations and sometimes fantastical retellings of official history, need to be included in the story he is telling us, such that we imagine, or he lets us believe we imagine, that what is unfolding in the labyrinth of his text is one, unending metastory. Frequently, in his wandering, loosely punctuated prose — sometimes described as magical realism, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness, but perhaps just as easily thought of as the flow of history running all around us and threatening to flood the present — he will take us sidestepping through the fragile walls that separate these universes, giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture before shuttling us back to the scene in which this particular story is taking place.

The Elephant’s Journey, published in Portuguese in 2008, was one of Saramago’s last works. The journey of the title is inspired by historical events that occurred in 1551, when King João III of Portugal decided, on the advice of his Austrian wife, to give Archduke Maximilian the belated wedding gift of an elephant. Solomon, the elephant, and Subhro, his keeper or mahout, have been languishing in Lisbon since being brought back from Goa two years prior. It’s decided that both will travel to Valladolid in Spain, to meet with the Archduke, and then proceed with him to Rosas on the East coast, then across the Mediterranean to Genoa in Italy, and on to the imperial city of Vienna.

Solomon and Subhro travel with an assortment of soldiers and porters and it is the human relationships that develop amongst the travelers that make up much of the narrative. The dialogues that take place are as intriguing to follow as the route taken by the caravan because, as usual for Saramago, only commas are used to differentiate the speakers. There are no quotation marks, while capital letters and periods are kept to a minimum in order to keep the conversation and narrative as fluid as possible.

Saramago has used the narrative device of the journey before, for example in The Stone Raft (built upon the conceit of the Iberian Peninsula breaking away from Europe and floating across the Atlantic Ocean), The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (consisting of a number of localized journeys the protagonist takes around the city of Lisbon), and his travelogue A Journey to Portugal. As in those works, the elephant’s journey works not only as a spatial concept, but also as a way of taking readers on a detour through the corridors of memory, history, and representation. Indeed, at times in the novel, there is less of a sense of the actual distance covered by the train of royals, soldiers, porters, and animals than of the digressions and reflections that any journey, like any train of thought, inevitably brings with it.

Saramago, as detached, ironic observer of the progress of men and beasts, asks his readers to collaborate in these digressions and reflections, constantly tearing down the narrative strategies that allow a reader the fantasy of “being there”. We are there in a sense, but we are always here, too, taking on the roles of directors, set designers, and interlocutors. We are consulted on questions relating to anachronism, verisimilitude, and representation, issues with which writers and historians have to deal constantly and which Saramago seems to want to delegate to us. We are not here to be entertained, but rather to hold the writer and his characters up to the scrutiny that representation demands. The magic of Saramago’s style ensures, however, that we are still entertained, still glad to be in the presence of such an eccentric weaver of tales.

Saramago will suggest, then, that, for strategic reasons, we ignore certain anachronisms, that we use modern kilometers as our unit of measure, for example, or that we allow him to use the words “pigeon-fanciers” (“a term that did not exist at the time … but which was doubtless going around knocking at doors, with the absent-minded air affected by all new words, asking to be let in”). For the sake of convenience, experiences of 16th century Europe are translated into contemporary representations. As a result, we find ourselves constantly shuttling back and forth between present and past, here and there. The text is the result of this weaving and its pattern stresses temporal and spatial connections rather than any obvious chronological development.

Given the amount of work the reader is asked to do here, it’s tempting to invoke Roland Barthes’ famous essay “The Death of the Author” when considering The Elephant’s Journey, not because Saramago has left us, not even because we are witnessing Margaret Jull Costa’s typically excellent translation from the Portuguese and hence having to deal with English terms such as “pigeon fancier”, but rather because the text is laid out before us as a site of play and experimentation, as a refusal to be explained via the history it (mis-)represents or the life of the author “behind” it.

However, no matter how much the center of representation is destabilized in this work, the authorial voice remains as strong as ever. There is never any doubt that this is a text that could only have originated with José Saramago. We, meanwhile, float above the narrative, text, and book, looking down on the characters, the scenes, and the author at work. As ever, Saramago proves himself to be an author who respects our intelligence and our ability to navigate between narrative and metanarrative, who shares the mechanisms of representation with us because, ultimately, he trusts us.

Saramago’s metanarrative is masterfully unfolded over the course of the novel, leading to an ever greater sense of the author’s duplicity. On the first page he is wary of disrespecting one of his characters, King João of Portugal, by going into sordid details about the royal bedroom. By page 139, he is declaring, “you know how it is with writing, one word often brings another along in its train simply because they sound good together’. By page 180, he is declaring himself a liar. By page 193, he is asserting the impossibility of describing anything. At one point late in the novel, Saramago slyly suggests that it would be more convenient if photography had been around in the 16th century to better render the physical details he is struggling with, as if photography was not itself a distortion and reduction of reality, as if the camera never lied.

Ultimately, and most importantly, Saramago’s trickery emphasizes an obvious, but often neglected, point about literature: words create reality rather than merely transcribe it. One of the chapters of The Elephant’s Journey opens with the statement, “The wolves appeared the following day.” Saramago immediately subverts the drama of the situation by adding, “Perhaps they had heard us mention them earlier and finally decided to show up.” This humorous opening, so typical of its author, highlights the fact that the wolves exist because all involved in the story have made them exist. The characters, exposed and anxious in the wilds, have conjured up wolves in their minds long before the creatures materialize. The author has summoned them, both by alluding to them in a previous chapter and by writing them into existence in this one. The reader, too, has created them because of his contract with the writer, the shared endeavor of filling out the details of this lost historical tale.

There are genuinely moving moments along the way, such as Subhro’s developing friendship with the Portuguese captain and his profound connection with the elephant itself. The culmination of the journey is also an emotional affair, not because it brings a happy ending (Saramago won’t let us off that easily) but because it signals, once again, the end of our contract with the author. There is more late Saramago still to discover (the translation of the blog posts written in his 80s, a memoir of his childhood years, his last novel Cain) but an air of finality still hangs over this novel. In the year of the death of José Saramago, this tall tale, teasingly told, seems as fine a way as any to bid farewell to a master storyteller.