The Fanciful and True Story of an Elephant Crossing a Mountain

Julie Schumacher, author of “Dear Committee Members,” recommends José Saramago’s “The Elephant’s Journey,” written in Portuguese but published in English in 2010.

This short novel reimagines an odd historical incident from the 1500s. The King of Portugal offers, as a wedding present to his cousin, the Archduke of Austria, an elephant named Solomon—who then, accompanied by appropriate regal fanfare, makes the long voyage, mainly on foot, over the Alps from Lisbon to Vienna.

The elephant has a trainer, a mahout from India, and he worries a lot about his relations with the royals who are on the trip about pleasing them. At one moment, the elephant is asked by a priest to kneel down in front of the church to show that he is a “creature of the faith.” And the Indian elephant driver needs to make that happen.

The pilgrimage of the elephant Solomon and his entourage is strangely fanciful and comic, with the point of view shifting from one character to another. In one passage, the elephant Solomon admits to feeling anxious about “his grayish coffee color, sprinkled with freckles and hairs. It was a permanent disappointment to him, despite the advice he was always giving to himself about accepting his fate.”

Saramago’s trademark prose style—the phrases and sentences unlatched from one another, and curiously recombined in a breathless, semi-punctuated fashion—can take a bit of getting used to. But a few pages into the novel the effect is wonderfully hypnotic. The narrator darts like a buzzing insect through the paragraphs, reappearing unexpectedly here and there to make pronouncements or to ask questions about grammar, war, god, marriage, class, race, geography, and human/animal relations. “It is time to warn the reader that two of the characters here are not acting in good faith,” the narrator says. In the hands of a lesser writer, such interruptions would be annoying, but in “The Elephant’s Journey” they are seamlessly woven into the text.

I worry that someone listening to this recommendation might decide that “The Elephant’s Journey” sounds difficult, experimental, inaccessible. But Saramago’s novel is funny, poignant and deeply moving. This is not weighty historical fiction, it’s a very contemporary and remarkably cheerful flight of fancy. By retelling the wildly improbable story of an elephant traversing the Alps almost 500 years ago, Saramago creates a one-of-a-kind journey for the reader as well. As one of the characters in the novel ultimately concludes, in a moment of celebration, “It isn’t every day that an elephant appears in our lives.”

BookMark: Julie Schumacher recommends Saramago's "Elephant's Journey"

It was 1551, and Archduke Maximilian got a wonderous wedding gift from King João III of Portugal: an elephant named Solomon.

"Dear Committe Members" author Julie Schumacher recommends Portuguese Nobel Lauaureate José Saramago's retelling of this true tale.

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