Jose Saramago
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
ISBN # 978-0-547-35258-9
205 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2012

If Shakespeare hadnít already used the title, this novel could well have been subtitled: Much ado about nothing. Yet it is about a little something Ė a journey taken by an elephant and its mahout (its trainer and keeper), from Portugal to Valladolid, Spain and then on to Vienna, Austria. All this took place in 1552.

Dom Joao of Portugal has an elephant named Solomon. Heís not too sure itís much fun to keep an elephant, and since Maximilian, now the emperor of the Hapsburg Empire, is in Valladolid with his Spanish wife of four years and now empress, Dom Joao decides to offer Solomon to the emperor as a gift. It seems a great idea to him to win favor.

Thus the novel is the story of the journey of the elephant, its keeper, Subhro, from Portugal to Vienna.

And yet that is not what this novel is about. Itís more the excuse for the novel. It is the platform on which Saramago can chat with us, make jokes, comments on the differences in life and living between the 21st and 16th centuries, and just have a great deal of fun. It does sound very strange to say that the novel has relatively little to do with the plot, but I think that so. Itís all about the telling of the tale and the similarities and differences in the historical periods (the now and the then). The writing is witty, believable, eye-opening and inspirational.

For example, early on in the novel there is some discussion of religion and Subhro allows that he has been baptized a Catholic, but he doesnít really practice religion and this leads to some discussion in which Saramago attacks the notion of the miracle of Jesus drowning hundreds of pigs in the Sea of Galilee. Later on, while they are in Padua, Solomon is coached by Subhro, and at the insistence of the clergy, to perform a ďmiracleĒ by kneeing in front of the cathedral. Saramago dead-pans:

This time, however, padua is the first with the news, because it isnít every day that an elephant solemnly kneels at the door of a basilica, thus bearing witness to the fact that the message of the gospels is addressed to the whole animal kingdom and that the regrettable drowning of those hundreds of pig in the sea of galilee could be put down to the inexperience, occurring as it did before the cogs of the mechanism for performing miracles were properly oiled.

Another piece of Saramagoís marvelous humor is the way he takes time out to chat with the reader. The archduke has chosen to make this incredible journey in the winter, with two very dangerous Alpine passes to negotiate. Why? More importantly, what hay does Saramago make with it?

Itís hard to understand just why the archduke maximilian should have decided to make such a journey at this time of year, but that is how itís set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

I love that passage, and he seems to be so right about story-telling and traditional forms. I do a lot of family history. And there are basic formulas of how data is collected: One finds dates of birth, deaths, marriages and such. One finds the name of places lived, and full names of people. But where are the details of everyday life? Unless one is very fortunate to have direct experience with people and write down their stories, or one has letters and such, it is almost impossible to get the nitty gritty daily experiences. So, one can do what Saramago does Ė invent, but to do some with intelligence and other sources that might lend plausible detail to what hasnít been recorded.

Another passage which I found to be both delightful and insightful to Saramagoís way of story telling, the Emperor has told too much to Subhro, and wonders if he can trust him. But, he ends up showing his own confidence in diplomacy.

the archduke began to think that perhaps he had said too much, that his words, if the mahout let his tongue run away with him, would be of no benefit whatsoever to the delicate political balance he has been trying to keep between luther's reforms and the ongoing conciliar response. After all, as henry the fourth of france will say in the not too distant future, paris is well worth a mass. Even so, a look of painful melancholy appears on maximilian's slender face, perhaps because few things in life hurt as much as the awareness that one has betrayed the ideas of one's youth. The archduke told himself that he was old enough not to cry over spilled milk, that the superabundant udders of the catholic church were there, as always, waiting for a pair of skillful hands to milk them, and events so far had shown that his archducal hands had a certain talent for that diplomatic milking, as long as the said church believed that the results of those matters of faith would, in time, bring them some advantage.

This is the 14th of Saramagoís novels which Iíve read and commented upon. (I even commented TWICE on one novel since I didnít understand it the first time I read it.) And while I donít think this will become most peopleís favorite Ė there just isnít too much of a ďtale Ė I liked it as much as any, more than most and I tend to have loved them all. It is his chatty style of engaging the world with his thoughts, comments and theories on the whys and what-fors of history.


If you havenít read the novel and do plan to I would urge you NOT to scroll down for a bit of a spoiler I felt I needed to comment on.

I was at least ĺ through the novel when I began to wonder Ė did this crazy event, the taking of the elephant to Vienna, really happen? I had just assumed that this was like so many other crazy plots in Saramagoís writing, something that not only never happened, but couldnít: the Iberian peninsula never REALLY broke away from Europe and went to sea, nor did the whole of a city go blind, or the double exist. Thatís just Saramagoís way.

However, I began to wonder if something close to this did occur, and my plan was, as soon as I FINISHED the novel, but not before, I would hurry to Google, pull up Maximilian and see if anything like this really happened.

When I finished the novel, there was a one page note after the close of the story. It told of how Saramago came to know of this claimed historical event and that he did actual research on what details were available, and then invented his enriched version. I was quite delighted and not just a bit startled by it all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett