José Saramago’s novel The Elephant’s Journey, published after his death earlier this year, borrows its action from an actual historical event: the gift of an elephant by the king of Portugal to the Archduke of Austria in 1551 and the elephant’s subsequent journey to its new home. Filled with charm and whimsy, it reads like an adult fairy tale. The uncomplicated plot, which follows the elephant’s path through Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Austria, provides plenty of superficial entertainment as humorous events (a fabricated miracle) alternate with more suspenseful ones (a harrowing mountain crossing). Just beneath the story’s straightforward surface lie more complicated issues of class conflict and religious tensions, though Saramago chooses not to fully explore these more serious issues in this lighthearted novel.
Saramago maintains a witty and satirical tone throughout the book. No character is spared from his teasing manner, including Saramago himself: “There is no wind, although the mist seems to form slow whirlpools as if boreas himself were blowing it down from the far north, from the lands of eternal ice. However, to be honest, given the delicacy of the situation, this is hardly the moment for someone to be honing his prose in order to make some, frankly, not very original poetic point.”
Some may find Saramago’s way of presenting dialog to be confusing. In typical Saramago form, conversations unfold in long paragraphs of run-on sentences with the occasional comma and capital letter providing the only clue that the speaker has changed. This format lends a natural quickness to the spoken exchanges but can be difficult to follow at first. Although rather simplistic and frivolous compared to Saramago’s more major novels, The Elephant’s Journey is a warmhearted and engaging tale.
The Elephant’s Journey is published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear here and there regularly.