Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 208 pp., $24
Once upon a time — a time of civil war and spectacle, when Protestant fervor swept Europe and the Inquisition intimidated the faithful — an Indian elephant traveled on foot from Lisbon to Vienna. 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.
Like Cervantes and Voltaire, Swift and Twain, Saramago, who died in June at 87, was adept at skewing reality for satiric purposes. His fierce opposition to the long dictatorship of Portugal's António Salazar shaped his most savage novels, including "Blindness" (1995), a dark parable in which a contemporary city descends into chaos and cruelty after an epidemic renders the populace sightless.
By comparison, "The Elephant's Journey" is a lighthearted romp. It draws from another wellspring of Saramago's artistry, his intense love for his maternal grandfather, Jerónimo, an illiterate swineherd who introduced him to the magical art of storytelling. Saramago honored him in his 1998 Nobel lecture as "a man who, lying under a fig tree, having at his side José his grandson, could set the universe in motion just with a couple of words."
"The Elephant's Journey" begins in 1551, when Portugal's Catholic King João III and his wife, Caterina of Austria, send the elephant Solomon as a wedding gift to her cousin, the Lutheran-sympathetic Archduke Maximilian of Austria.
Saramago conjures up a cast of fictional characters to flesh out those based on historic record. First among them is Subhro, Solomon's mahout or keeper.
"Sitting astride the part of the elephant where neck meets sturdy body and wielding the stick with which he steers his mount," Saramago writes, the mahout "is about to become the second or third most important character in the story, the first being the elephant Solomon." (The third is the Archduke Maximilian, who shows up halfway through the book with his "peacock's tail of court parasites.")
Subhro is a canny man who would be near the bottom of the rigid hierarchy were he not outside it. To keep his job and preserve Solomon's health and safety, he must be prepared to match wits with everyone he encounters, including the Portuguese captain leading the retinue and the Austrian archduke. Early on, he persuades the captain to rearrange the convoy, putting the slow-moving oxen carrying Solomon's feed and water in front of the dozens of cavalry and porters.
Saramago has rendered his mahout so intensely observant, independent-minded and wily when dealing with authority that he would fit into modern times. Anyone faced with an autocratic boss will recognize that moment when Subhro, renamed Fritz halfway through the journey by the archduke, shrewdly assesses his new master: "…the captain of the Portuguese cavalry was a man with whom one could speak, a friend, not an authoritarian archduke, who, aside from being Charles the Fifth's son-in-law, has no other obvious merits to recommend him."
The road to Vienna is fraught with dangers, including a pack of wolves that imagines "how lucky it would be to have at its disposal all those tons of meat just outside the lair" and deadly alpine passes. For the most part, the gigantic Solomon maintains his placid nature, bedazzling all who witness his passing. One village priest calls upon the elephant to collaborate in a faux miracle; another attempts an exorcism. And Solomon gently calms a panicked crowd by performing a striking act of compassion.
"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. Reading Saramago's dense narrative, an almost continuous outpouring of words with no paragraphs, sentences or quotation marks, I think of his grandfather's voice, peopling the night with suspenseful stories of "legends, apparitions, terrors, unique episodes, old deaths, scuffles with sticks and stones, the words of our forefathers, an untiring rumor of memories."
And what will happen when the elephant reaches Vienna?
Saramago gives the mahout the ultimate, still timely, lines: "There'll be a lot of applause, a lot of people crowding the streets, and then they'll forget all about him. That's the law of life: Triumph and oblivion."
Ciabattari is a regular contributor to NPR.org and the Daily Beast, among many publications. The author of "Stealing the Fire," she serves as president of the National Book Critics Circle.