Historical fiction, whether of the popular or more rigorous variety, tends to open with a bang: Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, for example, opens with a beheading, and The Constant Princess with a gigantic fire in a military camp; even Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall begins with the horrendous beating of the young Thomas Cromwell by his drunken brute of a father.
By contrast, José Saramago's The Elephant's Journey - set, as are the aforementioned novels, in Renaissance Europe - starts in a rather pedantic way with the King and Queen of Portugal in their unexciting "marital bed," discussing the possibility of offering their elephant, Solomon, as a wedding gift to the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria. What follows is an account of the journey of Solomon, his mahout Subhro and the various porters, soldiers and nobility who accompany them on the sometimes tedious, sometimes perilous journey from Belem to Valladolid, and across the Alps to Vienna.
Saramago is equally concerned with describing practicalities - the search for adequate water, fodder and shelter for the hard-driven elephant and men - and evoking the "inner changes wrought by the journey," changes experienced by Subhro, the Portuguese commanding officer, and perhaps Solomon himself (though, as the narrator insists, no human can ever know what goes on in an elephant's head).
In the process, we are led to consider the differences between ignorance and false knowledge, and between the grand narrative of history and "wretched reality." Saramago insists on the impossibility of historical fiction that aims to procure for the reader a ringside seat at the most thrilling moments of the past. When, for example, we read of the elephant and his entourage struggling across the icy Brenner Pass, how can we claim to experience the danger and terror of such a crossing, we who have never made such a journey "in the sixteenth century, when there were no roads or gas stations, hot snacks and cups of coffee, not to mention a motel where you could spend the night in the warm, while outside the storm rages and a lost elephant utters the most anguished of cries."
The Elephant's Journey is a work of great and sly charm, taking its time to weave the nets in which its readers will find themselves delightfully enmeshed. Its mischievous treatment of religious strife (the duel between Lutherans and Counter-Reformationists) and its wry account of the ways in which "lofty personages" are kept from learning about the less perfumed aspects of reality (no Lear-on-the-heath moments for the Archduke of Austria, who is spared any stepping in elephant droppings) are equally engaging. Above all, it is the relationship between Solomon and Subhro - "star-crossed lovers" and suspect "others" in the eyes of the Europeans with whom they must deal - that makes this narrative so compelling.
"[E]ery elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he's taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, How do you know, When 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, Your word games are beyond me, It's not me playing games with words, it's them playing games with me."
This is quintessential Saramago, not just the idiosyncratic punctuation (which soon ceases to disconcert us) but also the interplay of proverbial wisdom with a postmodern self-referentiality that eschews coy or flashy effects.
"The greatest disrespect we can show for reality. … when attempting the pointless task of describing a landscape is to do so with words that are not our own and never were, by which we mean words that have already appeared on millions of pages and in millions of mouths before our turn to use them finally comes."
These are, of course, the words of a writer at the end of a substantial and glorious career, yet when he declares, "Words fail me," it is not that he is suffering from exhaustion. He makes this declaration "[b]cause words really do fail us" in translating the variety, complexity and unexpected possibilities of life: possibilities that comprehend both the extraordinary journey of an elephant from India to Europe and also the death of that same elephant a mere two years after he reaches Vienna.
One of the most captivating moments in The Elephant's Journey deals with Solomon's parting with the porters who have carried his food and water on the journey to the Spanish border: On one of the porters, Solomon, bestows "caresses that seemed almost human, such was the gentleness and tenderness implicit in every movement. For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race."
Acts of leave-taking are especially poignant in this, Saramago's last work: As we reach the end of this brief but rich novel, we cannot help but feel profound regret at having to quit the company not only of Solomon and his Mahout, but also of José Saramago, who died this year at the age of 88.
Janice Kulyk Keefer is professor of English at the University of Guelph; her most recent novel is The Ladies' Lending Library.