THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The elephant’s tale

Venerable storyteller weaves together truth and absurdity

Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s final novel follows the extraordinary trek of a pachyderm and its keeper through 16th-century Europe. Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s final novel follows the extraordinary trek of a pachyderm and its keeper through 16th-century Europe. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/File 1998)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2010

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José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and Nobelist, has ended his journey with another one: a 16th-century trudge from Lisbon to Vienna by an elephant named Solomon, a present from the Portuguese King João III to Archduke Maximilian, heir to the Holy Roman Empire. “The Elephant’s Journey,” written not long before Saramago’s death in June, displays his unique mix of absurdity, sudden logic, comedy shading to melancholy, and digression that tunnels up into unexpected purpose.

Guided by Subhro, Solomon’s discursive Indian mahout, and escorted by a detachment of Portuguese soldiers, the elephant, who is allowed an occasional discursiveness of his own, travels north to Castelo Rodrigo, crosses into Spain, and makes his way to Valladolid, where he is turned over to Maximilian. The procession, lavishly swollen by Austrian courtiers and troops, continues by sea to Genoa, crosses the Alps over the icy Brenner Pass, and is triumphantly welcomed to Vienna.

The journey is based on a historical event; and perhaps Saramago has forfeited a little of his power by it: His greatest novels invent their own history. “Blindness” is an astonishing parable of what happens when suddenly nobody can see; in “The Stone Raft,” Spain and Portugal break off from Europe and go floating away; in “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” a proofreader’s mischievous insertion of “not” drastically alters three centuries of Portuguese life. In “Elephant,” the extraordinary story is very roughly tied to the real; that is, it lacks some of the unhampered detonations of Saramago’s magical realism. Nonetheless it is for the most part a delight.

It is not so much because of the events. Saramago recounts them well enough, filling out the few facts with incidents he invents, at times rather dutifully. The ponderous logistics are well imagined: the wagonloads of fodder, the tubs of water, the need to find extra oxen to do the pulling. The narration comes most fully to life in the last stage: the struggle of Solomon and Subhro, accustomed to Indian heat, to get over the treacherous, snow-blown Alps.

Even in his most extraordinary work, though, it is not his stories that are the heart of Saramago’s writing. He uses them to bring out the idiosyncrasies of his characters: He turns them upside-down, as it were, for the unsuspected coinage that drops from their pockets. He gives them actions; he questions their actions; he has them question their actions; sometimes he has their animals — dogs, or here, an elephant — question their actions. In the old metaphysical riddle — to do or to be — he is on the side of to be, and his wonderful looping dialogues, skillfully translated by Margaret Jull Costa, are a sunnily skeptical interrogation of the to do.

The pleasure in “Elephant” lies in its characters’ interrogatory encounters. Subhro, a stranger in Portugal, and even more of a stranger among the Austrians, is torn between deference — he is a lowly mahout, after all — and discovering and defending his own reality. His and his elephant’s. When the arrogant Maximilian demands that he cut short Solomon’s accustomed rest period, saying he was no longer in India, he refuses. “If your highness knew elephants, as I believe you do, you would know that India exists wherever an Indian elephant happens to be.”

In his farewell at Valladolid to the commander of the Portuguese detachment — after initial distrust they have become affectionate friends — he compares himself to his charge. “Every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all.” And he continues: “I realized that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live the more I ignore.”

In the service of kings and emperors, his Subhro and Solomon, even while obeying, assert their individual selves — their souls, one might say, if that doesn’t insult the writer’s devout atheism. The funniest and most scouring scene in “Elephant” has Subhro teaching Solomon to kneel before the shrine of St. Anthony in Padua. He does it under threat from the local church authorities, who find it convenient to stage a “miracle.” Subhro had worried that Solomon would fail to perform. Never mind, a priest tells him: Miracles that don’t happen are the best kind. “That way we relieve the saints of some of their duties.”

A thread of defiance runs through all of Saramago’s work. He was a Communist and remained one; but in his novels there is no hint of the shackles that Communism in power has tried to impose on its artists. Rather, there is a vein that rejects all impositions, even that of cause upon effect. Thus our sense, reading him, that the law of gravity is being subverted by the pull from other astral bodies, ones that Saramago has invented and dispatched into our orbit.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for several publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

THE ELEPHANT’S JOURNEY By Josť Saramago

Translated, from Portuguese,

by Margaret Jull Costa

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 205 pp., $24