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The Elephant’s Journey – Jose Saramago

by Venky


This fascinating piece of fiction from the Portuguese master has to, in my humble opinion, rank amongst the top of the pile of his ingenious and enviable works. This poignant, persuasive and almost polemic narrative describes the journey of an endearing Solomon a pachyderm, who after being anointed as a wedding gift for the archduke of Hapsburg, Maximilian, by King Dom Joao III, has to traverse the punishing routes from Lisbon to Vienna on his stubby feet.

Solomon is accompanied by his able and devoted mahout Subhro, in this daunting endeavor. Although the word Subhro means “white”, the mahout in a paradoxical vein is as dark in appearance as the very animal to which he tends with great love and care. Although an illiterate, Subhro, as the tale unravels is a man of great mystique and mystery as he proceeds to mystify the Portuguese commander and his team of cavalry and porters with stories ranging from the macabre to the magnificent. The Portuguese commander who is entrusted with the safety of Solomon and his mahout till such time the transfer of the elephant as a gift is made is a man of deep integrity and great simplicity. Always at the ready to protect, preserve and ply the cause of his men, he strives to ensure that the tedium of the journey is alleviated by any and every possible means such as requesting a group of villagers to shelter his men from pounding rain or allowing the weary porters the luxury of an extra pair of oxen, requisitioned from another set of villagers.

Although the protagonist of the story is the lovable Solomon, he is merely an instrument for us to fix our gaze and thereby understand the very meaning of life in great incandescence. The elephant signifies the helpless and vacuous nature of the human mind which is subject to and influenced by extraneous convulsions, chaos and catastrophies. This point is bought out in a nakedly stark manner when Subhro states “every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he is taught, and another who insists on ignoring it all”. Jose Saramago has woven a succulent tapestry that provides an eye opener to a variegated nature of human emotions. The novelty factor here is the undoubted ingenuity of having created such a dazzle around an elephant! For instance the act of the archduke of Hapsburg to change the name of the elephant and its mahout from Solomon to Suleiman and from Subhro to Fritz respectively conveys nothing other than a mere gesture symbolic of political one-upmanship. Similarly the greatly moving act of Subhro whispering into Solomon’s ears (whilst the latter is in a serene state of sleep) directions not to obey a new mahout in the event Subhro is to be replaced after the transfer of the gift, signifies the emotions of selfishness and insecurity. Subhro however redeems the wrong by again whispering into the gigantic mammal’s sleeping ears an apology.

Succinct and thought provoking humour also assails the aesthetic senses of the reader. A classic instance being when Subhro narrates the mythological story of the evolution of the elephant as a God head as per the Hindu scriptures. As and when Subhro is enchanting his listeners with the story of how Lord Shiva breathed life into his own son whose head he had chopped off unwittingly, by fixing onto the dead son’s neck the head of a dying elephant, a few villagers plagued by angst and anxiety rush to the house of the head priest in the middle of the night to regale him with this transfixing narrative. Admonishing them for falling into the clutch of such ‘beliefs’, a determined father proceeds the very next day to drive away the evil spirits plaguing the head of Solomon. Armed with an aspergillum and a container of holy water, the father proceeds to chant a great many verses in Latin and at the same time trying to exorcise Solomon of a veritable deluge of demonic spirits that might have taken occupation in him. Solomon, fed up with these antiques slightly lifts his leg and makes contact with a surprised priest who is flung a great distance apart and suffers some treatable damages to his godly hip!

This is a story of human frailties and fickleness, triumphs and tribulations. More than anything else this is a magnificent peek into very life itself and the celebrations and catharsis surrounding it. The tragedy befalling Solomon after he valiantly saves the life of a child on the very first day he enters Vienna also serves to instill unadulterated hope that all is not yet lost for the human race in terms of fraternity, friendship and fostering of a bond of peace for to steal a quote from this marvelous and formidable Noble Laureate – “We are more and more, our own defects and not our qualities”. The Elephant’s Journey – A stirring walk of life!

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