Friday, 21 October 2011

The Elephant's Journey

The Elephant's Journey - Jose Saramago

This is a journey sustained on a humourous tension between telling the tale and dismantling it. Before we even start on the story proper, Saramago tells of it's genesis in the mural on the wall of a restaurant. So we know the book is the result of "a chance encounter", almost a whim.

This provisionality is a key element of The Elephant's Journey, not just the writing but the story itself. The story involves the sending of  Solomon the elephant from the King and Queen of Portugal in Lisbon to the Archduke Maxmillian of Austria (the Queen's cousin) who is in Valladolid and will then take Solomon on the Vienna. The idea of sending this late wedding gift is a whim, which the Queen almost regrets (but not quite). Solomon had been a great success on his arrival in Lisbon but now he is yesterdays news and languishes in filthy obscurity with his Indian mahout, Subhro (white). This is projected to be his future in Vienna, too: "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."

The first step is to find out if Maxmillian wants the gift and for this purpose the master of the horse is sent to Valladolid. When giving him instructions the King makes a joking reference to the then unwritten Don Quixote, asleep on his faithful Rosinante: "I think you should, if you can, in order to gain time, try to sleep on your horse while you gallop along the roads of castile." Like Don Quixote this book lampoons the false and overheated manners of the time. "This was a time when knights errant had pledged to complete god's work and eliminate evil from the planet. It was also a time when love was only deemed to be love if it was of an extreme and radical nature.."

However when they return from their journey the horsemen reek of less exalted things. " Three days later, toward the close of the afternoon, the master of the horse, at the head of his escort, its pomp now somewhat dimmed by the grime of the roads and the inevitable stench of sweat exuded by both equines and humans, dismounted at the palace gates, brushed off the dust, went up the steps and was hurriedly ushered into the antechamber by the lackey-in-chief, a title which, as we had best confess at once, may not actually have existed at the time, but seemed to us appropriate, given the fellow's own corporeal odour, which he positively oozed, a mixture of presumption and false humility." The very insistence on the reality of grime and odours only serves to heighten the metafictional effect of the writing. The author is very much a character in the book. He's not in the background, filing his nails ( if he was, there would be nail filings attached to the pages of the book)

This refusal to try to convince us of the 'truth' of the narrative, is a type of truth, but one that is created also to deceive. It allows Saramago to pose as an artless writer, just making it all up as he goes along, harking back in some ways to the oral tradition, where digressions and comments are commonplace.

He often brings the difficulty of expressing anything in words to the forefront of the book, telling us, for example, how difficult it is to describe a simple measurement when the way these were measured was often fluid, changing over time and borders. Because of difficulties such as this he has to decide on a way of transcribing the dialogue of the time (wholly imaginary as it is) into an agreed modern idiom. "It will be as if we were adding subtitles in our own language to a film, a concept unknown in the sixteenth century, to compensate for our ignorance or imperfect knowledge of the language spoken by the actors. We will, therefore, have two parallel discourses that will never meet, this one, which we will be able to follow without difficulty and another, which, from this moment on, will remain silent."

Subtitling a film is an apt simile for Saramago's method. His narrator pretends he can hear, see and smell the story events, but to interpret or predict events he must engage in speculations. These 'speculations' make up a large part of the narrative. "He (Subhro) poured his words into that ear in an unintelligible murmur, that could have been hindi or bengali or some other tongue known only to them, a language born and raised during the years of their solitude, which was still solitude even when interrupted by the shrieks of the petty noblemen from the court at lisbon, or the mocking cries of the populace of the city and environs, or, before that, the sailors' jibes on the long voyage that brought him and solomon to portugal."

Saramago seems to feel that the 'realist' fiction is worse than dead, it is like a zombie, neither dead nor alive. "The greatest disrespect we can show for reality, whatever that reality might be, when attempting the pointless task of describing a landscapes, is to do so with words that are not our own and never were...weary words, exhausted from being passed from hand to hand." At other times he decries his own attempts to describe a thick fog which descends on the camp: "this is hardly the moment for someone to be honing his prose in order to make some, frankly, not very original poetic point."

The misinterpretation of words plays a part in the narrative; Subrho tells the soldiers of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant, some villagers misunderstand him to mean that Solomon is a god. This leads to an exorcism being performed the next day. There is also the language of court and the language of military propriety, both of which have the capability of causing a personal fall from grace or even a war.

Subrho himself is no great believer in anything - "Because its all words and only words, and beyond the words there's nothing." He is however, prepared to cash in on the beliefs of others and when some people start to believe in the magical properties of Solomon's hair, he is not loath to cash in on it. This leads to complications, however, and one of my favourite lines in the book: "Having to pay for your own dreams must be the most desperate of situations."

Naturally, the story of Hannibal arises as well, and the journey of Solomon is compared to that of the legendary general. Again this gives Saramago a chance to undermine the heroic stance with his own, more modest and spriteful tone. "He took them to war, To a war waged by men, Well, there isn't really any other kind."

This is neither history nor romance, but a philosophy leavened with enough of both for them to act as a spoonful of sugar and help the medicine go down. There's no ignoring the elephant in the corner of the room, the elephant with the aptly named mahout (subrho=white). Your attention is brought to bear on the nature of storytelling and of history. I'll leave the last word to Jose (in translation, of course - he may not have meant it quite this way): "that's how it's set down in history. as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historian 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."

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