Elephant’s Journey – Jose Saramago

21 September 2010
First third – to the priest’s attempted exorcism
It’s a story. If ever we might start to forget it’s a story Saramago – or the gossipy, rambling narrative persona he’s become for the duration – gives us little nudging reminders. After the prologue-like opening, in which the king and queen decide they will give away the elephant they’ve become rather bored with, the narrator sadly leaves the royal couple where they are, speculating how they’ll get on once the story has followed the main characters out of Lisbon. Or lisbon – Saramago, or his (etc.) persona, has made up his own rules of capitalisation and punctuation. He can do that if he likes.

So. He’ll pretend that we’re on the road with the elephant and his mahout, perhaps feeling the rain or whatever – but he’ll remind us that’s just a game by mentioning something from nearer our own times, like a wartime gas attack. Or he’ll remark on his own cleverness as he saves himself ten pages of description through a deft use of onomatopoeia. Or… etc. It’s like an oral narrative told by someone who wants us to know he’s making it up as he goes along – and wants us to sympathise with him and his task, as long as he does a good enough job. He hasn’t mentioned passing a hat round yet, but there’s something of the diffident intimacy of the street performer about him.

The elephant, with its accompanying mahout, cavalry officer, 30 soldiers and as many labourers with ox-carts, is making its way to the Spanish city where the recipient, the Archduke of Austria, is staying. From there (the king and queen decide in the first chapter) it’ll be up to the archduke what to do. The plot outline couldn’t be more simple, more linear – so Saramago can play around with the narrative line as much as he wants. We can be inside the elephant’s head, or the mahout’s (which is where we most often are) or anybody else’s. Saramago can take us into 16th Century concerns about the Inquisition or tales from Hindu mythology – or bring these together in a farcical set-piece scene in which a local priest, spurred on by villagers who have misheard the discussion, attempts an exorcism and gets a kick for it. The kick is relatively gentle, like most things in the book so far.

And it really has passed into the realms of fairytale, or Magic Realism – or both – with the story that comes after the failed exorcism. A straggler is lost in the soup-like mist until the elephant trumpets three times as though to guide him. But the mahout tells him the elephant didn’t make a sound and… as the sun breaks through, the mist disappears – along with the straggler, whose story hasn’t reached the happy outcome he’d hoped for, but (presumably) the one in which he dies of cold or an attack by wolves. In other words this narrator is telling us he can do what he likes. It’s only a story, and what did or didn’t really happen ceased to matter some centuries ago.

Am I having as much fun as Saramago presumably is? I’ll let you know.

22 September
Next third – to the disembarkation at Genoa
As you were. We don‘t hear any more of the disappeared man, so maybe I was making it up. Or Saramago was, or whoever he’s become while he’s giving us all this stuff. It’s still moderately engaging, with the narrative still subject to little loops and squiggles as we’re encouraged to think about army discipline, or national prejudices, or the relative status of courts or soldiers or species. One of the narrator’s extended metaphors, which he doesn’t pretend to be original, takes us from the idea of these people being mere players on a stage to their unceremonious final exit from the story, through the back door that leads out to the garden. Well, that was unexpected. A bit. And the ridiculous not-quite anachronisms – comparisons to things that don’t yet exist at the time of the story – are quietly droll.

The journey. First they have to get to the Spanish border, where responsibility will pass to the archduke’s guard. Our commanding officer knows the Austrians will want to simply take the elephant, but… etc. Saramago makes it into a little satire on diplomacy and power. That’s ok. (In this part of the story, the Portuguese are always the poor relations. Another kind of satire on Portuguese pretensions? Could be.) So now they’re in Spain, and get to the Spanish city fairly quickly – maybe Saramago or his narrator persona is no more bothered than he expects us to be – and we meet the predictably snobbish, overbearing archduke.

More stuff – gentle satire on royal pretensions, as with the absurd oversized saddle-cloth – and now they’re on their way to the port. Now they’re at the port. And it’s goodbye from me – the mahout, with his name changed, absurdly, to Fritz – and it’s goodbye from him: the elephant, almost gracious in his farewells, offering another opportunity for musings on, er, something or other. The elephant’s name has been changed too, but the mahout decides names aren’t important. Is anything? (Pause for reflection.) And… now they’re getting on the ship. Now they’re getting off. And we’re inside the mahout’s head as, from the top of the gang-plank, he lords it over the astonished populace in Genoa. Then they get over it, which is a valuable lesson to him, along with the others.

Somehow, it’s as though Saramago, at the age of about 87, is imitating being a still sharp but nevertheless rambling old man. Visiting old men can be good fun. Can be.

23 September
The final third
It doesn’t change hugely, but I liked this part better. Perhaps it’s because Saramago, or whoever is narrating, spends far less time on the journey than on those squiggles and loops. It started to remind me of W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, in which a real walking tour – complete with the sort of pictures our narrator regrets he can’t show us because photography hasn’t been invented yet – forms the basis for thoughts on history, philosophy, topography…. It isn’t travel writing in Sebald’s case because he rarely describes what’s in front of him. In Saramago’s case he gives us reasons: we might have noticed that he deliberately distracted us during the journey through the first of the alpine passes because he would have done such a poor job of describing it if he’d tried. They’re over the second of the passes in a couple of paragraphs with one reference to near-vertical walls and a couple to not-quite avalanches. So… this final third of the novel takes us through more than half the journey: Italy, the Alps and Austria, including stops.

Inevitably it’s developed, mainly, into a light-touch rumination on the nature of history and storytelling. It’s always been this, but the devices Saramago uses to foreground these issues have become more and more noticeable. His references to things that haven’t happened yet include the Lilliputians, Wagner and modern tourism in the Algarve – to say nothing of the jokey apology for the lack of photographs – each time with a reminder that these things are long in the future. He draws our attention to the way he skirts around difficult topography because ‘words cannot describe….’ Or he reminds us that his descriptions of what the elephant is thinking must be mere speculation because the animal couldn’t possibly have told him – and by drawing our attention to this he’s reminded us all the human characters’ thoughts are his inventions too. And a different writer would have researched things more thoroughly, given us a less sketchy impression. In which case we would have had a conventional novel about an elephant’s journey instead of what we have got, which isn’t.

I mentioned the riff on tourism in the Algarve. It comes as part of a description of an Italian Alpine resort frequented by Austrians and Germans, where more German is therefore spoken than Italian. The grumpy old man narrating this is clearly annoyed by the way the Portuguese language has practically disappeared in parts of his own country. I imagine Saramago, gently satirical, is deliberately reflecting back a common complaint his readers have probably made themselves. It goes with the other references to the poverty of the country relative to most of the rest of Europe – and with his references to the Catholicism of the queen, naïve compared to more sophisticated practices elsewhere. (Not all that sophisticated, obviously: there’s plenty of outright superstition for the Hindu Fritz, as he now is, to wonder at.)

After a faux pas in Padua (he tries to cash in on the elephant’s brief fame by selling tufts of elephant hair as a miracle cure for baldness) the mahout is fretful. Will he ever be able to be the Archduke’s friend, as he became the commanding officer’s in the first section of the journey? Of course not, but Saramago is clearly interested in the way men respond to one another when thrown together. But these are a side issue compared to the most rounded relationship in the whole story: the one between the mahout and the elephant. It isn’t treated sentimentally, and Saramago never speculates about what is going through the elephant’s head without reminding us that it’s impossible to know…. But it works. Marriages and other alliances in this book are sorry things by comparison.

Anything else? Descriptions of snow and ice are pretty graphic, as is the feel of cold through even the thickest coat. Nearly everything else is sketchy, which is fair enough… except, now I think of it, the care with which the Archduke plans his entrance into Vienna. Not for him the chaos of the port: they leave the river-boat at the previous town so a grand triumphal statement can be made. More gentle satire, I suppose, on the vanity of princes. It’s punctured, gently, by the elephant’s heroic rescue of a little girl. She’d been in danger from… the elephant’s own trampling feet. How we laughed.

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