Monday, October 10, 2011


This has to be the funniest book I've ever read.

But having said that, I didn't laugh out loud at all, nor did I even smile. What I did do was to keep saying to myself, "Oh No!" or "This is SO funny" or "Hysterical!"

The Elephant's Journey was written by Jose Saramago and first published in Portugal in 2008. It was translated from Portuguese into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published in 2010. I didn't learn about it until about a week ago and I knew after reading a short review that I would like the book.

It's a novel based on a true story about an elephant who was given as a wedding present to Archduke Maximilian of Austria by his cousin, Portugal King Joao III in 1551. Setting out from Portugal is an entourage of dignitaries, cavalry troops, quartermaster and his wagon, oxen pulling a cart that contained the elephant's food and his water trough, and an assortment of helpers of one sort or another. They make their way through Spain, cities of northern Italy: Genoa, Piacenza, Mantua, Verona, Venice, and Trento, where the Council of Trent is in session. They brave the Alps and the terrifying Isarco and Brenner Passes; they sail across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Inn River (elephants, it turns out, are natural sailors). At last they make their grand entry into the imperial city. There's a laugh on every page.

As if a funny story wasn't enough, the author tells the story almost without using punctuation marks, which although at first it is a bit difficult to read, ends up as what storytelling is all about - the flow of words, ideas, language, happenings and heart.

I am not sure which of the characters is the funniest - the King, the Archduke, the elephant, the mahout, the secretaries, translators, soldiers, or the commanding officers. Even the Priest and the village Mayor are in the running, as are the oxen! This is storytelling at its best. The scenes are marvelous, full of wit and wisdom, hilarity and humility. The elephant, who starts out his trip with the name "Solomon" becomes "Suleiman" and his keeper, an Indian named Subhro is ordered to become "Fritz" - better names, according to the Archduke.

I nosed around the Internet to learn a little more about Saramago, and in several places it seemed that because he was a Communist, some reviewers were hard-pressed to grant this story a super-good review. However, in Saramago's lifetime (he died in 2010) he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so he must have something good in his pencil.

I think this probably is one of those books that some people just aren't crazy about. But for me, any book that can make me laugh from beginning to end is right up there with the best.

1 comment:

Olga said...

Thanks for the tip. I will look for this.