The Elephant’s Journey

By Jose Saramago

The Short Take:

Start with the true story of an elephant’s trek from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551. But tell that elephantine tale with sly wit, delightful language, and a bemused modern viewpoint. It’s hard not to be completely charmed. I was.


It didn’t occur to me until I had almost finished this book that it could be true. There was something so magical about how the story unfolded, its characters, and the mere fact that an elephant would walk across Europe, including through the Alps in winter. Of course, my history is not what it should be, but I figured at best the late Saramago had thrown in a few historical characters like the Archduke Maximilian. Not so. This is a real tale from start to dramatic finish. But it is also very much a novel.

I will warn you that punctuation and customary capitalization are pretty much non-existent in this slim book. One single sentence can actually contain lines of dialogue by two people. But I quickly fell into the rhythm of the writing and I bet you would, too. The story is told in such a me-to-you fashion that you accept the punctuation as part of true story-telling pacing.

The elephant’s trainer, or mahout, is a delight with his curiosity, concerns, and private schemes. And while the elephant itself is never anthropomorphised, it’s dignity, determination, and intelligence are clearly on display.

Of course, I have a lot of gall even writing a review about a book written by someone who received the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I’m so glad I read this totally delightful tale.

A Little Plot:

King Jaoa of Portugal offers to give his elephant to the Archduke Maximilian and the Archduke accepts the gift. That means the elephant, Solomon, and it’s Indian mahout, Subhro, must make a journey of epic proportions and largely on foot. Of course, transporting an elephant requires special provisions as well as protections for the dignity of all parties involved. Then there is the awe and delight people all along the elephant’s route experience when they see the first — and probably only — elephant in their lives.

But the journey is largely a framework for the musings of our storyteller. Here’s just one observation about humanity that really impacted me: “We are, more and more, our own defects and not our qualities.”

It’s because of lines like these that you should read this book. If you want to know more about Saramago and his works, you can go to his Wikipedia entry by clicking here.

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