I have had this novel on my shelf for well over a year. I was hesitant to start it because I thought that it might be a story punctuated with animal cruelty, which I always find so distressing. I was wrong, there is no overt animal cruelty although it must have been very hard on an Indian elephant to march through the ice laden passes of the Alps in the middle of winter. It is more of a fairy tale or a novel written in the style of mystical realism but based on an actual historic event. In 1551 the King and Queen of Portugal presented the Archduke Maximilian of Austria and his wife with the very elaborate wedding present of an elephant. The author begins the story by imagining a bedroom conversation between John III of Portugal and his wife Catherine in which they convince themselves the elephant would make a delightful gift. In modern terms it sounds like someone’s aunt and uncle deciding to give their niece and nephew the gift of their old Cadillac. One says, “What do you think of giving Max and Cathy our old Caddie” the other says “Brilliant idea, it’s a wretched gas guzzler but it looks impressive and we never use it anyway. I’m sure the newly weds will love it!”
The Archduke was residing in Spain in 1551 and just about to journey back to Vienna where he was the heir apparent to the Hapsburg monarchy. He was delighted to go back home with the gift of an elephant because it would aggrandize his entourage as he made his way across the continent. The story, as José Saramago relates it, becomes a comedy of vanities as the many members of the travelling company try to outdo each other as to who is the first to report this or that event or to find favour with the Archduke. This game of one-up-manship is in constant play and is of special importance to the Mahout Subhro who is the elephant’s keeper and constant companion. We are not given very much of Subhro’s early story but at some point he embarked on a great lifetime adventure sailing from India to Portugal with Solomon the elephant for reasons the author does not imagine except to imply that Subhro is rather a social outsider whether at home in India or travelling in Europe.
The charm of this novel is in its telling. It is the author’s last or close to last novel before his death and he chose to let the story unfold in a relaxed style, relating events imagined and real as if they were told while sitting in a comfortable chair chatting with old friends over a cup of tea. If one wanted to simply summarize the events one could say: once upon a time the King of Portugal made a gift of an elephant to the Archduke of Austria and so the poor creature was made to walk from Lisbon across Spain to the Mediterranean where he was put on a ship and sailed to Genoa, marched up through Italy and finally across the Alps amid she snow and ice of winter into Austria.
In the hands of the master storyteller the events are embellished with observations that put it in perspective. The author might remark that the last time the Alps had felt the tread of an elephant was when Hannibal lead his army through its snowy passes. Or he might sneak in the fact that, enroute, the elephant passed by the City of Trent where a collection of Church prelates was attempting to change the course of western history. Then there are details of how you feed an elephant on such a journey. The answer is that you have to have oxen dragging carts loaded with fodder. This the author imagined had the result of slowing down the entire expedition because no matter how powerful the Archduke might be he and his entourage could only travel as fast as its slowest members. …a bit of an allegory there.
The author also imagined that the Austrian soldiers who travelled with the Archduke as his armed escort would have begun the journey resplendently in impressive uniforms and shining armor that did not tarnish. However as they approached the Alps the metal of the armor dripped with ice and became unbearable so that the soldiers were forced by the rigors of Nature to abandon their finery and buy whatever overcoats and warm clothing they could find in the village shops along the way. In the end, they looked more like a column of bedraggled refugees than the pride of the Austrian army. Well, there you have it, men can be such silly, conceited creatures easily defeated by the weakness of their vanities while the unassuming elephant plods along and is magnificent being just an elephant, no more, no less.
This is a slim volume that takes only an afternoon to read. As is his usual style, José Saramago uses punctuation and capitalization sparingly. Thus, without quotation marks, for example, you have to pay close attention to the dialogues to know who is saying what. That said, however, the master storyteller has created such distinct characters to populate this book that following along the course of a conversation is not difficult.
In addition to its entertainment value I think this could be a writer’s manual as an example of controlled, writing economy, exquisite pacing, drama, humour and above all, elegance.