Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tusker Tale

This appeared in last Saturday's The Indian Express


In the tale of the blind men and the elephant, each person describes the animal in a different manner, depending on the part that he feels. Something similar occurs in Jose Saramago’s last, posthumous novel, The Elephant’s Journey.

The novel is inspired by the true story of an Indian elephant and his master travelling from Lisbon to Vienna on foot in 1551. In Saramago’s telling, the pachyderm, named Solomon, is a gift from the king of Portugal to his cousin, the archduke of Austria. Solomon and Subhro, his mahout, travel by land across Portugal, by sea across the Mediterranean and finally traverse the Alps, in the manner of Hannibal’s army.

The officers who travel with them, and the people they encounter along the journey, react to the elephant in ways that reveal more about their self-importance and insecurity than the actual animal itself. The animal emerges as larger than life, open to interpretation:  “Some even say that man himself was made out of what was left over after the elephant had been created…”

Commanding officers and priests, in particular, show themselves to be equally susceptible to petty vanity, Saramago’s way of gently mocking different sections of of the state. In particular, he pokes sly fun at Christian theology, sometimes contrasting it with Hindu myths, especially that of the origin of Ganesha.

There’s much of the author’s trademark style in the way the novel is written. Paragraphs go on for pages and quotation marks are done away with in favour of run-on dialogue separated by commas. In addition, proper nouns are democratised by doing away with capitals. One gets used to all of this surprisingly quickly, and the cumulative effect is to add more than a degree of orality to the narrative, all aided by Margaret Jull Costa’s adept translation.

 This aspect is emphasised further by Saramago’s impishness. There are frequent asides to the reader, some of them self-referential: “Now, this story has not lacked for reflections, of varying degrees of acuity, on human nature, and we have recorded and commented on each one according to their relevance and the mood of the moment.” At other times, he gleefully skates over centuries: “It’s a shame that photography had not yet been invented in the sixteenth century, because…we would simply have included a few photo from the period, especially if taken from a helicopter, and readers would then have every reason to consider themselves amply rewarded and to recognize the extraordinarily informative nature of our enterprise.”

The book’s second half has something of a rushed air, especially when contrasted with the first; and Subhro the mahout does come across as a bit of a cipher, with one remaining unsure of his motivation. For all that, The Elephant’s Journey is a pleasure to read in the way that an updated parable for our times would be a pleasure to listen to. A folktale, then, but one told in the knowing, ironic tone of a person who has seen the world and its foibles more clearly than most.

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