Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago

Title: The Elephant's Journey
Author: Jose Saramago
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin / Harcourt
First published: 2008 (as A viagem do elefante)
Pages: 224

Rating: 7 out of 10

What a wonderful gem of a book!

The Elephant's Journey is the tale of an elephant named Solomon and his keeper, Subhro. They live an easy life in the stables in 1551 Portugal, until the King decides to send Solomon as a gift to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The elephant and his troupe of journeymen travel through many lands, over seas and mountains, before they reach their destination.

I absolutely loved this charming, fable-like book. It was somewhat lightly written, with deeper themes underneath, often hilarious, and sad in a bittersweet sort of way.

At first, I was annoyed by the author's writing style, which is a bit different. His sentences are extremely long (sometimes half a page or more), he does not use quotation marks, and he does not see what the big deal is about capitalization. It is confusing and a bit disorienting at first, though once I settled into the story, I didn't mind it. However, I still don't see anything creative or unique about alternative "literary" writing like this, that involves switching around the basic rules. It doesn't exactly do anything for the story, which makes me wonder why any author would decide to write a book like this. Shrug. Oh well, it thankfully didn't get in the way of my enjoyment of this book, though it may make me hesitant to read another of this author's books.

Besides that minor detail, I would find it hard to come up with any other negative points to this book.
Another creative, slightly different writing style that the author used was one that I did like - his narration. He takes the idea of an outside narrator a little step further, being a separate presence that is not all knowing and all seeing, but rather almost human. The first time that I really noticed the style of narrating and thought about it was when Subhro was speaking in Bengali to Solomon, the elephant. The narrator says that unfortunately, he can't say what Subhro is talking about, because he doesn't speak Bengali.

The characters of this book were delightful. One of the first that we are introduced to, the King, was an actual ruler in 1500's Portugal - Dom Jao III. Here in the story, the king was hilarious with his hot and cold, playfully unpredictable way of doing things. He wavers between kindness and cruelty (we are never really sure which one is accurate). He is always having conversations with his secretary, who appears to also be his closest adviser, that go without warning from familiar to commanding, so that the poor man is never quite sure what to say, leaving him terrified. An example is when the King reprimands the secretary for an error. When the secretary tries to apologize, the King warmly says never to mind, and that it is him who should apologize. The King seemed a bit like a young boy, given so much power and realizing that he could now use it to jokingly torment whoever he liked.

Subhro, a more central character, was written to be the most normal, without the eccentricities that many of the others have. He apparently used to live in India, but tells a man that the country and its religions are dead to him. I wonder what makes him say this? Was he brought to Portugal against his will, or did he travel there of his own accord? He knows the elephant, Solomon, better than anyone, and appears to love him dearly.

The Captain, who was overseeing the journey from Portugal to Austria, was another comedic character. I think that he was my favorite, since he made me laugh so many times. His frank way of putting things, his arrogance, his shades of stupidity every once in awhile, were a laughable blend. I was trying not to laugh aloud in Barnes & Noble's at a particular part in the book where he marvels at his own greatness. The way he praises himself is hilarious.

The Duke, who is receiving Solomon as a gift, did not have very many appearances, but I strongly disliked him. Presumptuously, he changes both Solomon and Subhro's names once they arrive. After this, he appears to give them no further thought, except to make sure that Subhro doesn't change his name back. After journeying so far and putting in so much effort, it seems unfair that their voyage will come to an arrogant man changing their names and then ignoring them.

The journey, as the title probably imparts upon you, takes up most of the book as the most important part of the plot. Rather than throw in various things you may expect on a voyage (natural disasters, storms, starvation or thirst, weariness, some wheel breaking...), the author peppers the journey with the most trivial, boring of details. They are so commonplace and normal that they become fascinating. The author spins these trivial little things into, again, hilarity. For example, the Captain is always grumbling about the food going moldy, or being gross, and wondering who in his right mind would think to pack this? A town is described as being "asquelch with mud," an invented word that made me chuckle. The men, bored after a long day of just walking, sit about at night and have the entertaining arguments. I particularly loved their religious argument, which had me laughing. Another priceless one was where someone told a story about a cow who fended off wolves for days that were trying to attack her calf. The men get into a nitpicking argument over how that could not be true, or how it could. Eventually, they agree that the real story was probably that the cow fended off one wolf, which they conclude by saying "that cow deserved a medal for bravery and merit."

Besides the laughable tone, this book was also certainly capable of being poetic, beautiful, and touching on more solemn issues.
The author's style of prose is gentle and simply put, but always, always well written. I loved this: "The moon was slipping gently into the arms of another night."
The reader also gets a sense, particularly closer to the end of the book, of the injustice of Solomon's journey. Poor elephant, forced to leave his native India, go on another long journey, voyage the sea, climb the snowy Alps and trudge through "snow devoured valleys," and kneel at the Basilica because the Duke wanted a "miracle." Poor Solomon.
The selfishness of humankind is felt strongly by the reader, propelling unfortunate individuals with no choice in the matter forward, whether they like it or not.

I loved this jauntily told, fun, and beautiful story. Recommended.