Nobel Prize

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.


Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Seeing – Jose Saramago

Blindness is one of my favourite books, so I was intrigued by its sequel, Seeing.

Seeing is set in the city that was affected by the blindness epidemic four year ago. The city holds an election, but when the votes are counted 70% of them are blank. They hold another election the following week and this time 80% of the votes are blank. For some bizarre reason (that I couldn’t grasp) the authorities panic, declare a state of emergency and all hell breaks loose.

It pains me to say this about an author I love, but I’m afraid I couldn’t finish Seeing. It started off reasonably well as I’m already used to Saramago’s unique writing style, lacking in punctuation.

…but we are dealing here with humans beings, and human beings are known universally as the only animals capable of lying, and while it is true that they sometimes lie out of fear and sometimes out of self-interest, they occasionally lie because they realise, just in time, that this is the only means available to them of defending the truth.

The book described the elections which were held on atmospheric rainy days, but as you may know I’m not a fan of politics and I think the political satire in this book just went over my head. I didn’t understand why a low turn out in an election led to the events and the lack of a central character meant that I didn’t really care what happened. We view the city almost from above and so the personal emotion that made Blindness so powerful was lacking.

The plot was meandering and had almost disappeared entirely by the 150 page mark. I started to skim read and found that nothing was happening many pages later. I looked up a few online reviews and discovered that other people had a similar problem – there was no plot in the second half of the book. The effort required to read it was too much and so I decided to give up.

Recommended to those who enjoy political satire.


Have you enjoyed any of Saramago’s lesser known works?

Or had similar problems with them?


2008 2009 Books in Translation Historical Fiction

Equator – Miguel Sousa Tavares

Translated from the Portuguese by Peter Bush

I received a lovely email from Raquel, a Portuguese reader of my blog, enquiring as the whether I’d read any Portuguese fiction. Saramago and Bolano have both impressed me, but I haven’t read any other Portuguese books. Raquel said that Equator left her ‘breathless’ and so I was very excited when she offered to send a copy to me.

Equator begins in Portugal in 1905. King Dom Carlos is worried about British reports that slavery still exists on São Tomé and Príncipe and summons Luís Bernardo Valença, an intellectual who writes papers on the civilising effect Portugal has on it’s colonies, to his court. The King sends Luís Bernardo Valença to assess the situation, forcing him to leave his shipping business and live on the remote island near the equator for three years. Here you will get fastest way to transport ship Singapore to Australia.

Luís Bernardo Valença arrives on São Tomé and Príncipe to discover that the cocoa plantation owners have shipped people from Angola and employed them on a fixed term contract, meaning that they are not free to leave at the present time. This means that it is almost impossible to decide whether slavery exists or not.

Equator is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, which brings up a complex discussion as to what constitutes slavery. I loved the brief glimpse of Portuguese court, and learning about it’s colonies. This book has inspired me to read more about the history of Portugal, as I know very little about it.

I got slightly bored in the middle of the book when the British Consul arrived, and the book went into a bit too much political discussion for my taste, but the plot picked up again towards the end.

Overall, I found it to be a very interesting look at a period of history that I knew nothing about. Recommended to anyone who loves historical fiction.


What is your favourite Portuguese book?

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Nobel Prize

The Double – José Saramago

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

Translated from the Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa

Blindness is one of my favourite books and so I have been keeping an eye out for Saramago’s other books ever since I finished reading it. Unfortunately I haven’t been very successful – they never seem to turn up!  Then,  last week I finally spotted one in the library.

The Double is the story of a history teacher who sits down to watch a rented video one evening and is shocked to discover that one of the actors is identical to him in every physical detail. He tracks down his look-alike and confirms that they are exact copies of each other – so alike that even their wives cannot tell them apart.

As with Blindness, Saramago’s writing style takes a bit of time to get used to. There are very few paragraphs and the words just seem to flow together at times, each page just packed with a sea of words:

Although he does not really believe in Fate, distinguished from any lesser destiny by that respectful initial capital letter, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso cannot shake off the idea that so many chance events and coincidences coming all together could very well correspond to a plan, as yet unrevealed, but whose development and denouncement are doubtless already to be found on the tablets on which that same Destiny, always assuming it does exist and does govern our lives, set down, at the very beginning of time, the date on which the first hair would fall from our head and the last smile die on our lips.

It doesn’t take long to adapt to his style though, and I quickly became caught up in this imaginative plot. It doesn’t have the pace or fearful adrenaline rush I experienced with Blindness, but it is just as thought-provoking. If it were possible, would you want to swap lives with someone? Would you feel threatened by someone who was identical to you in every way? What would you do to protect your identity?

I loved the ending – it was cleverly written and left me with lots to think about.

The Double isn’t in the same league as Blindness, but it  is a very good book.



Is Blindness one of your favourite books?

Have you read any of Saramago’s other books?

1990s Books in Translation Nobel Prize Recommended books

Blindness – José Saramago

Translated from the Portugese by Giovanni Pontiero

Blindness is the most powerful book I have ever read. From the beginning, to the end my adrenaline levels were high, and my heart was beating so fast you’d have thought I’d been out running!

Blindness is a terrifying account of what could happen to us, if we were all to lose our sight. The book begins with one man suddenly losing his vision while waitng at traffic lights in his car. Someone offers to help the blind man back home, and it isn’t long before he becomes blind too. It quickly becomes obvious that the blindness is highly contagious, and so all the blind people, and those who have been in close contact with them, are rounded up and sent to an old mental hospital. Trapped in this old building, with an increasing number of people, conditions quickly deteriorate. Fights break out over the small amount of food, sanitation becomes almost non-existent, and it isn’t long before people are dying.

There is one woman who has not gone blind; she lied in order to stay with her husband. At first it seems as though she is the lucky one, but as time goes on this is not necessarily true. Would it be better to be blind than to see the horrors that are all around her?

This book is worryingly realistic. What would our governments do if there was an epidemic of blindness? How quickly would society break down? I thought I’d be able to cope without electricity, but when you stop to think about the infrastructure, you realise how soon you’d run out of food, and water. It’s enough to make me want to move to the country and become self sufficient as soon as possible!

This book took a little bit of time to get used to. The characters are all nameless, and there is little punctuation to break up the paragraphs, so the text is unusually dense. It was, however, completely gripping from beginning to end. I’m not sure I can say that I enjoyed reading it though. It will stay with me for a long time, and is a powerful statement about the fragility of our society, but I’m not sure enjoyable is the right word!

Highly recommended, as long as you can cope with the stress!

José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998.