The Elephants Journey

By Jose Saramago

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 205 pages

Anyone doubting Jose Saramago’s right to the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature will rapidly
change their mind when they read this superbly written book. Virtually every
third sentence, on the average, is filled with clever eye-opening humor. The
narrator also interrupts the drama on almost every page and makes ironic and
hilarious comments.


The story is about a gift of an elephant by the king and queen of Portugal in 1551, apparently
based on an actual event, which couldn’t have been as funny as Saramago
portrays it, to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, and how the elephant was
delivered. Among a host of other comments by the narrator and the novel’s
characters, Saramago uses the tale to pock fun, once again, at the Roman
Catholic Church. He has, for example, one character claim that in Christianity,
there are four gods, the fourth being the virgin mary (Saramago doesn’t use
capitals except in the beginning of sentences or the start of a quote.). “Well,
I’ve never heard anyone ask anything of god or jesus or the holy spirit, but
the virgin can barely cope with the torrent of requests and prayers and
supplications that arrive at her door at all hours of the day and night.”


He mocks the story of the driving out of demons from pigs in the gospel, asking why the innocent pigs
had to be led into the lake to die. Isn’t this inhuman? Surely the demons
seeing that the pigs were about to be drowned would escape from the beasts
before they were sunk: “the regrettable drowning of those hundreds of pigs in
the sea of galilee could be put down to inexperience (on the part of jesus),
occurring as it did before the cogs in the mechanism for performing miracles
was properly oiled.”


He pocks fun at miracles when he describes how priests persuade the elephant’s trainer to train
the animal to bend its knees and bow in front of a Catholic church, to show
that even a dumb beast recognizes that Catholicism is correct and not the
Protestant Church.


Similarly, he ridicules prayer when he writes: “As the poet said, the pine trees may wave at
the sky, but the sky does not answer. It doesn’t answer men either, even though
most of them have known the right prayers since they were children, the problem
is finding a language that god can understand.”


These are just some examples that one could quote on just one of many subjects that Saramago
joyfully comments.