The Elephant's Journey

by José Saramago

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago Based on actual events, The Elephant's Journey opens in 1551 with the king and queen of Portugal deciding to make a wedding gift of an elephant to Prince Maximilian, a son of the Holy Roman Emperor. As the queen points out, "the creature came from india more than two years ago, and since then he's done nothing but eat and sleep, with his water trough always full and a constant supply of food, it's as if he were a kept beast, but one who'll never earn his keep."

Told in a stream-of-consciousness style by a narrator who is both on and not on the elephant's journey to Austria, the story is a travelogue of history and human nature, sparing with capitalization and paragraph breaks, omitting quotation marks entirely, but bursting with humorous asides and tidbits of irreverent wisdom. Readers may find the wisdom worth pondering, though the author never pauses, rolling merrily along from Lisbon to Valladolid, aboard ship to Genoa and overland to Trent, through the Alps (where we're treated to a quick tour of the highlights of Hannibal's crossing) into Austria.

"The past," says the narrator, "is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a road, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it's not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear ..." And a wily mahout, a military officer with a bit more pride than common sense, a politically astute mayor, a determined priest, pigeons, and more. In this novel, the past may be most like a butterfly, simply but marvelously decorated, sipping from one delicious, nutritious flower after another. The elephant remains enigmatic, "a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he's taught and another who insists on ignoring it all ..." (original Portuguese edition 2008; English translation by Margaret Jull Costa 2010, 205 pages)

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Other historical novels featuring elephants:

Caligula by Douglas Jackson (2008), about an elephant trainer and a gladiator in ancient Rome who plot to assassinate the emperor. More info

The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson (2009), about a stable boy who forms a bond with a pair of elephants shipped to England in 1766. More info

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006), about circus performers in the Depression-era U.S. and an elephant named Rosie. More info

Nonfiction about elephants in history:

Love, War and Circuses by Eric Scigliano (2002), about the relationships between humans and elephants from ancient times into the present. More info

The Pope's Elephant by Silvio A. Bedini (1997), about Hanno, the elephant presented to Pope Leo X in 1514 as a gift from King Manuel I of Portugal. More info

Hannibal's March by Gavin R. DeBeer (1955), about the route of Hannibal and his army over the Alps to Rome with their war elephants. More info


Imperial Menageries: Asian Elephants from Ceylon for the Habsburg Court, a short article at the University of Zurich Art History Institute website about the elephant at the center of Saramago's novel

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