- The Elephant’s Journey
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pp.
A Man and His Elephant
Your worst academic embarrassment in high school may have started with an English teacher demanding that you share your insight into Moby Dick by telling the class what the great white whale stood for. You cringed because, although you actually read the book, you completely whiffed on the symbolic meaning of that stupid fish. After allowing you to twist in the wind for the longest minute of your life, the teacher turned toward the smartest girl in class, who smoothly spouted out what the symbolism of that stupid fish…no, mammal!…lent to the meaning of the entire novel. Wait, whales are mammals?
You can exorcise that particular demon of meaning with Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey. The Nobel Laureate from Portugal died this past summer and this novel, originally published in 2008, is just now hitting U.S. bookstores in an excellent English translation by Margaret Jull Costa. The novel chronicles the journey of an Indian elephant named Solomon who finds himself lumbering from Lisbon to Vienna under the direction of his mahout (handler), Subhro in the fall and early winter of 1551-1552. I say “lumbering,” because no one can whisk an elephant anywhere, even if the elephant himself is amenable to a rapid change of scenery.
So, straight up — Solomon is a big symbol with tusks and his own notions about what he will and won’t do and at what pace. What does he mean? I can offer a suggestion or two, but before I do, let me state that the journey is by far the most important component of this novel. Solomon’s role is less to bring meaning to the story than it is to provide context for the actions and motivations of its human characters.
Solomon’s journey begins when the King of Portugal, Joao III, in need of a quick wedding gift to the heir to the Habsburg throne, remembers being given an Indian elephant a few years earlier. Solomon and Subhro, forgotten by the court and the people by this point, are spiffed up in short order with a good scrubbing for the elephant and a new suit of clothes for his interlocutor. Subhro is less a symbol, by the way, than he is the intellectual center of the novel, a Bengali mahout stranded far, far away from his native land who has the low cunning of Sancho Panza and a deep love for his four-ton charge.
Tossed to the Austrian heir, Maximilian, as a kind of consolation gift (we just gave fruit cakes to friends and family who appeared on the doorstep unbidden at Christmas time), Subhro and Solomon travel across the face of Europe from Lisbon to Spain, by ship to Genoa and through the narrow passes of the Alps in winter to reach Vienna. In the process, Maximilian doles out new names to the duo, Suleiman and Fritz. As the Habsburg heir tells Subhro, Fritz is a common name in Austria, but he’ll be the only Fritz with an elephant. Neither elephant nor mahout ever take to their new identities.
Saramago’s novels tend to wander from one topic to another, but the main focus here is how ridiculous and short-sighted human behavior can become when it is invisibly channeled by social and cultural forces. Human folly is the true raging beast in the novel (Solomon’s ill-temper is confined to gently kicking a priest who is trying to exorcise demons from the pachyderm) and the elephant becomes a mute co-conspirator in schemes to create a false miracle that will revive the flagging postmortem career of St. Antony of Padua and make Maximilian the center of attention in the Austrian empire when he descends from the mountains with his new wedding gift. Subhro, who can talk quite reasonably and at length, spends much of his time caring for Solomon and defending himself and his charge from the idiocies of various individuals and social institutions, a not-inconsequential task in a Europe newly-riven between Catholicism and Protestantism, where institutional suspicion can bring calamity down on the head of any man who stands out in any manner. And an elephant, if nothing else, does draw attention.
Saramago makes no attempt to get inside Solomon’s head, which relieves us of wading through the internal dialogue of a character whose entire interests consist of eating, bathing and deciding whether he will do whatever damn-fool thing his human companions ask him to do. But he does give us hints of what might be going on in Solomon’s heart. Throughout his long trip, the elephant does try to please Subhro and their emotional bond is one of the book’s many delights. There is something between humans and elephants that transcends the boundaries of species.
The Elephant’s Journey is actually one grown-up novel that older kids might enjoy reading for themselves or hearing read aloud. There’s no profanity in the novel and Saramago’s ability to wring delightful dialogue out of his characters will charm just about anybody. The compassion and love for a flawed humanity he brings to his work is much too rare in a literary world and broader society that seem to devalue these qualities at a time when they are desperately needed.
What’s that? I didn’t explain what Solomon represents? Trust me — you won’t have any trouble figuring it out on your own. Let your wife read it and you two can spend a few minutes at the end of a day trying to work through your own ideas about Solomon’s symbolism. Remember your wife? The smart girl in your high school English class who had Moby Dick all figured out and made you feel like a moron? Yeah, she got a lot cooler after you two went to college.
Sam Stowe is a writer and poet who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has a life-long love of elephants.