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Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
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A-The Elephants JourneyPortuguese novelist, poet, and playwright José Saramago, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, passed away on June 18, 2010. Based on actual events, The Elephant's Journey was originally published in his native country in 2008 and now appears for the first time in English.

The Story: In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal presented Archduke Maximilian of Austria, heir to the Holy Roman Empire, with an unusual wedding gift: Solomon, an elephant from his personal menagerie. Thus begins the elephant's perilous trek from Lisbon to Vienna with his Indian mahout, or keeper, Subhro. Forced to travel on foot across Portugal and Spain, where they are formally delivered to the Archduke, Solomon and Subhro must sail to Italy and resume their march through the frigid Alps. Together, as the animal-human duo faces wolves, rough weather, civil war, and conniving priests scheming for power during the Inquisition, the distance between man and beast diminishes, and the pair's unlikely friendship deepens.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 224 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780547352589

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"In Elephant, the extraordinary story is very roughly tied to the real; that is, it lacks some of the unhampered detonations of Saramago's magical realism. Nonetheless it is for the most part a delight." Richard Eder

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"I rank it very high in his work, and that it immediately, with no effort at all, joined the more forbidding novels that I have come to love best--The Stone Raft, Blindness, The Cave. ... Old Saramago writes with a masterfully light hand, and the humour is tender, a mockery so tempered by patience and pity that the sting is gone though the wit remains vital." Ursula K. Le Guin

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Four and a half centuries later, this arduous and unlikely trek inspired Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to write his most optimistic, playful, humorous and magical book, a grace note written near the end of his life. ... The Elephant's Journey is a tale rich in irony and empathy, regularly interrupted by witty reflections on human nature and arch commentary on the powerful who insult human dignity." Jane Ciabattari

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Saramago's vividly imagined alternative history isn't just more expansive. It's also much more fun--a picaresque romp that gleefully skewers the benighted souls clinging to outmoded worldviews while breathtaking new realities unfold right in front of them." Mike Fischer

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"There's no sex, not much violence, no God-awful narrative arc, and the insights arrive as gently as a skiff pulling up to a riverbank. Confounding though it is for me to say (believing as I do the mind of the apparatchik to be the nastiest soup), it would be hard to more highly recommend a novel to be downed in a single draft." J.M. Ledgard

Richmond Times-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"Just as Jonathan Swift offered scathing satire disguised as innocent adventure in Gulliver's Travels, Saramago scatters witty, subversive ideas about religion and royalty throughout his short novel. ... Admittedly, The Elephant's Journey is minor compared to Saramago's most important novels. But it's a tremendously entertaining picaresque, nonetheless." Doug Childers

Globe and Mail (Canada) 4 of 5 Stars
"The Elephant's Journey is a work of great and sly charm, taking its time to weave the nets in which its readers will find themselves delightfully enmeshed. ... Above all, it is the relationship between Solomon and Subhro--‘star-crossed lovers' and suspect ‘others' in the eyes of the Europeans with whom they must deal--that makes this narrative so compelling." Janice Kulyk Keefer

Critical Summary

Saramago's "vividly imagined alternate history" (Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel) charmed the critics with its vibrant characters, rich irony, and droll, but astute, observations. In fact, one critic labeled The Elephant's Journey "his most optimistic, playful, humorous and magical book" (Los Angeles Times), although Saramago's unique synthesis of empathy, absurdity, melancholy, and contempt for the powerful infuses the narrative. The critics cited a few negligible flaws, including some misidentifications and a careless description of Hindu beliefs and myths, and they mentioned Saramago's unconventional writing style, which lacks punctuation, capital letters, and paragraphs. However, reviewers deemed these concerns trifling given the wonderful, even exuberant, tale he relates--"a grace note written near the end of his life" (Los Angeles Times)--and a gift to readers everywhere.