The publication of a new book by José Saramago is always a significant event, this time a rather sad one, since The Elephant's Journey (Houghton Mifflin) is the last book he completed before his death earlier this year. Based on an actual occurrence in the year 1551, the book tells the story of an elephant named Solomon. Along with its mahout or keeper Subhro, it was to be given by the King of Portugal as an belated wedding present to Archduke Maximillian of Austria, who happened to be living in Spain.
Solomon was initially taken to Spain and then, under the auspices of the Archduke and his wife, journeyed on to Italy and Vienna. Subhro, who had come with the elephant from India, accompanied his charge all the way, though in the latter phases of the journey both experienced cold weather of a sort they had never known before.
Saramago's language is typically pungent and needle-sharp in characterizing the royal personages on both ends of the gift and the various clergy they meet along the way. But overall the feeling is that of a fable, in which the charm is in the telling, and this book charms from beginning to end. While I don't think it can be compared to Blindness or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ or The Cave, there is something wonderful in the thought that this great writer concluded his life's work with a smile. Read it and be charmed as well.
– Jeremy Nussbaum
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