Friday, December 30, 2016

Portugal: The Elephant's Journey, by José Saramago

In the previous post, I said that "enjoyable" wasn't the right word to describe "The Blind Owl". It is, however, exactly the right word to describe Saramago's delightful account of "The Elephant's Journey". In it, he weaves a whimsical fantasy around the true story of an elephant given by the king of Portugal in 1551 as a wedding gift to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, later to become Emperor Maximilian. To achieve this gift, the elephant had to be transported largely on foot (with a brief sea interlude between Rosas in Spain and Genoa in Italy) from Lisbon to Vienna, across the plains of Spain and over the Italian Alps to Austria.

The style is charming, if at times a little confusing. A minimal amount of punctuation and capitals means that occasionally it is difficult in a dialogue to tell exactly who is speaking, and where the shift from one speaker to another takes place. The narrator stands back and comments from a modern viewpoint, so that we read comments such as "Having to spend the night in villages meant finding in them a covered area large enough to shelter the horses and the elephant, the four oxen, and several dozen men, and that, as you can imagine, was not easy to find in sixteenth-century portugal, where they had not yet learned to build industrial warehouses or inns for tourists."

Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922 and came to prominence as a writer in his fifties. He has produced a large body of work including plays, poetry, short stories, non-fiction and over a dozen novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. He died in 2010. "The Elephant's Journey" is no doubt not the greatest of his novels, but is well worth reading. It was translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Vintage Books.

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