This fabular tale from Portugal’s late Nobel laureate follows Solomon, an Indian elephant ridden by a gentle mahout from Lisbon to Vienna in the mid-1600s.
Intended as a politically barbed gift from the King of Portugal to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian, Solomon is escorted to the Spanish border where Maximilian’s retinue collect him, only just managing to avoid a pitched battle in the process. Perceived variously as a possible threat, a beast to be exorcised, an opportunity for hoax miracles or even just a rumour, Solomon is the elephant in the room: discussed but rarely considered, save by the mahout.
In laconic prose, Saramago skilfully builds a journey of delicious digressions that set up resonances from Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque chivalries to Czech humorist Jaroslav Hasek’s pigeon-fancying soldier Schweik – all delivered with a jocular pedantry that satirises pomp and grand designs.
The Elephant’s Journey, by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Vintage, RRP£7.99, 198 pages