The Elephant’s Journey – José Saramago

  Translated from the Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998

Blindness is one of my favourite books and so I was looking forward to reading José Saramago’s latest novel – especially as he sadly died in June this year and so this will have been the last book that he wrote.

The Elephant’s Journey is based upon the true story of an elephant who travelled from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551, after being given by the King of Portugal to the Hapsburg archduke as a wedding present. The book details the journey, showing the problems the convey faced and frequently meandering off into bizarre, brief asides.

As usual Saramago showed his sharp insight into the human condition and I found many snippets of wisdom within the pages.

The absence of curious onlookers and other witnesses could be explained by the extremely early hour and the secrecy that had shrouded the departure, although there was one exception, a royal carriage that set off in the direction of Lisbon as soon as elephant and company had disappeared around the first bend in the road. Inside were the king of portugal, dom joão the third, and his secretary of state, pêro de alcáçova carneiro, whom we may not see again, although perhaps we will, because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

The plot is almost non-existent, but as usual I loved Saramago’s writing style. The absence of punctuation took a few pages to get used to, but then I started to wonder why anyone bothers with it! I was a bit confused by the capitalisation of various words throughout the book. For example, Lisbon has a capital letter in the passage above, but doesn’t on other occasions. I’d love to know if there is any significance to this or if Saramago was just being random.

This book wasn’t as unique or thought provoking as many of his others and for this reason I recommend that you avoid The Elephant’s Journey until you have fallen in love with some of Saramago’s other books. But if you are already a massive fan then then I think you will find a lot to like in this simple fable.


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  1. Tony says:

    I’ve heard a lot about Samarago, but I haven’t read any of his so far. Who would you compare him to in style (that I may have read)?

    1. Jackie says:

      Tony, I’m afraid that he’s unique ;-) I can’t compare him with anyone as his style is so individual. I highly recommend that you try one of his books. Blindness is the best I’ve read, but if you don’t like graphic scenes of violence and the depressing vioson of society collapsing then The Double is a very interesting book. I hope that you enjoy your first Saramago :-)

  2. Bibliophile By the Sea says:

    A lot to think about with your review. Not sure if this one would be to my liking although I did like a few of his other books.

    1. Jackie says:

      Bibliophile By the Sea, If you’ve enjoyed a few of his other books then you’re bound to like this one. It doesn’t have much of a plot, but his warm humor fills each page. I hope you decide to give it a try at some stage.

  3. Jessica says:

    I think I will get this at some point, Blindness is one of my favourite books and I quite like his style and how it sucks you in.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, I love the way that any of his paragraphs are instantly recognisable as Saramago. Noone has a style quite like him :-)

  4. Stephanie says:

    I am ashamed to admit I haven’t read Samarago yet, but I do have a copy of Blindness. This book sounds really good too–just the premise alone had me hooked!

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, I recommend starting with Blindness (unless you’re a bit squeamish!) I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  5. Sandy says:

    You are right, Blindness was a masterpiece. And you can’t compare him to anyone, at least nobody I have read. I wouldn’t mind reading some of his other work, knowing that they probably would not measure up entirely, but you can’t help but admire the man’s delightful uniqueness.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I think some of the others will be almost as good as Blindness (can’t imagine anything bettering it) but I don’t want to read them all at once. I want to save some, read his back catalogue slowly over the years – especially now I know he can’t write any more.

  6. Steph says:

    I have a galley of this one and hope to get to it soon… I’m so sad that Saramago is no longer with us, but it does comfort me to know I have so much of his catalogue to read. Also, I think it speaks volumes that you liked this book so much even without a strong, swift plot!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, Exactly. Not many authors can entertain me without a plot ;-) I hope that you enjoy this one, but as you say at least we know there are lots more of his books waiting for us to read.

  7. I love the assumption that we *will* fall in love with his works! I think I’ll have to add him to my list of Must-Reads for 2011. Isn’t it insane to be already plotting such a thing?!

    1. Jackie says:

      BuriedInPrint, Completely mad, but I find myself doing it too! I have so many famous authors I want to try, but no way I can fit them all in this year. I hope you do manage to read your first Saramago in 2011 and enjoy it as much as I did :-)

  8. Andi says:

    I should admit straight off that Saramago scares the piddle out of me. I think the lack of punctuation just looks difficult or disconcerting for someone like me who’s teaching it constantly. Glad to know it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of things.

    Aside from the fact that he scares the piddle out of me, I collect his books anyway. I have Blindness, All the Names, and I want the more recent one about death. The title escapes me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andi, I can see why he scares people and have to warn you that Seeing (the almost sequel to Blindness) justifies this fear – I found it so hard to read that I gave up. I think that most of his books are quite easy to read if you take 4 or 5 pages to concentrate. After that they read very easily and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

      It is great to know that you are already collecting them. I hope you build up the courage to start one soon.

  9. Amy says:

    OK, so I must pick Blindness off my TBR shelf and read it immediately, and then read this book at a later date? Got it!

    1. Amy says:

      I’ve only read one Saramago, DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS – have you read it? I soooo love it!

      1. Jackie says:

        Amy, I haven’t read Death with Interruptions, but have heard so many wonderful things about it. I’m saving it for when I need a guaranteed great read :-)

  10. Alyce says:

    The only book of his that I have read is Blindness, which was definitely a good book, just a little too vivid in details of violence. It definitely affected me, which to me means that the writing was good in that it made me uncomfortable. I have a copy of The Cave on my shelf that I hope to read at some point. Which book do you think I should read next of his? Are they all as shocking as Blindness?

    Oh, and if I remember correctly Blindness didn’t have quotation marks, which took a while to get used to as well.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyce, I haven’t read The Cave and I haven’t heard anything about that one. I’d love you to read it and let me know your thoughts.

      I haven’t read that many as I want to save his books and read them slowly – I’d hate to run out. I loved The Double, hated Seeing, but have heard wonderful things about Death at Intervals, Siege of Lisbon and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

      I can’t comment on the ones I haven’t read, but The Double and The Elephant are tame in comparison to Blindness. I recommend The Double next, but I’m sure all his others are good too. Enjoy!

      1. Alyce says:

        Thanks for the recommendations!

  11. I’ve only read Blindness but when I reviewed it a commenter recommended Elephant. As my TBR is quite long I haven’t got round to it but I will.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, My TBR is enormous too :-) I’m sure you’ll love it whenever you eventually get round to reading it.

  12. Blindness is one of my favourite books but I do want to read some of his others before I read this one. Have you read any of his others yet?

    Also, YAYYYYYYY!!! You have Corrag coming up! I can’t wait to hear what you think. I’m interested to see if you fall in love with it as much as I did or see a different take on it.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer,

      I’ve only read Blindness, The Double and Seeing. I suspect I’ll enjoy some of his earlier books more than Elephant, but that was part of the reason I wanted to read this new one now – I like saving the best for last :-)

      I’m really looking forward to Corrag and you’ll be excited to know that Wolf Totem is very high in the pile now too :-) I hope that I enjoy them as much as you did.

  13. Stephanie says:

    I love the quote, especially “Life laughs at predictions.” I would like to try some of this author’s work; I’ll probably start with Blindness.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, That’s great news :-) I hope you enjoy your first Saramago experience.

  14. Jenners says:

    I really want to try “Blindness.” It seems like that is the place to start with this author. But he does sound a bit challenging!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, He is a bit challenging, but well worth the effort. I hope you decide to give him a try :-)

  15. It would be nice if some Saramago expert can enlighten us why he is (not) using punctuation in the way he does.

    1. Jackie says:

      CuriousBookFan, Hopefully one will step forward soon :-)

  16. Matt says:

    This is the first review of the novel I’ve ever read in blogs. Obviously it’s put in the UK and not here. Looks like it’s another historical fiction after The History of the Fall of Lisbon. If you haven’t done so, check out Death with Interruptions. It’s such an unusual book, but in a good way. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Matt, Death with Interruptions sounds fantastic, but I’d like to save it for a year or two so that I don’t run out of Saramago books :-) Elephant’s Journey came out in hardback on 8th September in the US, so you should be able to find it there. I hope that you enjoy it.

  17. The only Saramago I’ve read is Death at Intervals, which I enjoyed despite finding it slightly difficult to get into, due to the writing style. I want to read Blindness first, and then maybe, read this one?

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, If you’ve made it through one of his books then I’m sure the rest will be easier to get into. Blindness does appear to be his best book, but whether you read it next all depends on whether you like saving the best until last ;-)

  18. I wonder why so many people write about elephants as protagonists? I feel like I’ve read about a few elephant-based books here :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Lija, LOL! I think it’s coincidence. I did read White Bone a few months ago, but I’m sure that there aren’t many more books about elephants out there :-)

  19. Frances says:

    I have a copy of this one but have been hesitant to start for the very reasons you reveal here. How could this live up to the rest of his literary legacy? I know I will read and, at some level, enjoy it anyway though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Frances, It isn’t quite as good as his other books, but it is a worthy addition to his legacy. I’m sure you’ll find a lot to enjoy.

  20. Iris says:

    I haven’t read anything by Saramago, but I have Blindness lined up :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Iris, I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  21. This sounds interesting, but i’m not sure if I could deal with the punctuation or random capitalizing. Inconsistency bugs me – it’s the copy editor in me, I think :) Is Blindness the same way, or not?

    1. Jackie says:

      Kim, Blindness is exactly the same, but I’m sure there is a reason for his randomness. I hope you decide to give Saramago a try soon. :-)


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