Walking across Europe…with an elephant…

So, I’m pretty much obsessed with the Spanish RTVE television series, Isabel.  Which means I’m pretty sad that Isabel I of Castilla (as in the Ferdinand and Isabella of Columbus fame) has died, bringing the series to an end.  Wanting to hang on to 16th century Spain just a bit longer, I went to my reading wish list and downloaded José Saramago’s El viaje del elefante (Santillana USA, 2009) on my Nook.  I had put it there when it showed up on a list of suggested reading I picked up in a book store in Santiago de Compostela related to the Camino de Santiago (see my last post), though as near as I can tell the only thing this particular novel has to do with the Camino is that it mentions the Spanish city of Valladolid, which is on some routes of the Camino.  That said, I enjoyed this little novel immensely.  There is a reason Saramago won a Nobel prize for literature in 1998.

Saramago was a Portuguese writer, but his work is available in many languages.  I chose to read The Elephant’s Journey in Spanish because it’s the closest I could get to its original Portuguese, but if you want to try this book in English the few lines of it I’ve read in English translation seem to capture fairly well the wry sense of humor and unique narrative style Saramago used to tell this true story of an elephant that was given by Isabel’s grandson, Juan III of Portugal, to her great-grandson, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as a wedding gift.  In order to reach his new home in Vienna, Salomón the elephant walks from Lisbon across Portugal and Spain, takes a boat to Genoa, then walks across Italy to Venice and up to Vienna through the Alps, including the notoriously dangerous Brenner Pass.  He is accompanied in this trip by his Hindu handler, Subhro, who Maximilian decides to rename “Fritz” because it is easier for him to pronounce that name.  This arbitrary change is one example of many where Saramago captures the social inequality of the period, as well as the relative incompetence/cluelessness of its most powerful rulers.

The definite hero of the novel is Salomón, who trudges across Europe with dignity and patience, in contrast to just about every human around him.  Accompanying him, Subhro serves to put in sharp relief the foibles of human nature.  Probably my favorite scene is when Subhro is approached by a priest of the cathedral in Padua requesting a “miracle”.  Subhro teaches Salomón to kneel at a particular signal, which he duly does the next day in front of the cathedral and a convenient crowd of witnesses.  In the ensuing frenzy surrounding this “miraculous” event, Subhro does a lucrative side business in selling hairs from the elephant as a solution to a vast array of medical problems, only to be chastised by the Archduke.  This is the time period of the Council of Trent, when the Catholic church is struggling to confront the challenges of Martin Luther and Protestantism, and I loved the way Saramago brought this complex situation down to the level of an individual non-Christian and an elephant.

Saramago writes in such a way that we know this is a story he is telling in the 21st century.  His ruminations on what individual characters are thinking at a particular moment call to mind Cervantes and his Don Quixote, but with a modern twist.  He has a deft, light style here that left me thinking, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”


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