José Saramago’s penultimate novel is replete with dazzling constructions and whimsy, says Arul Mani
PORTUGAL’S JOAO III gifts the Archduke Maximilian an elephant named Solomon after some years of anxiety over the appropriate wedding gift a Catholic monarch might safely give a Protestant cousin. Solomon, his mahout Subhro, a team of porters and an army escort thus trudge to the borders of Portugal, sail to Genoa and cross the Alps to get to Vienna where Maximilian holds court. An Indian elephant actually travelled from Portugal to Vienna in 1551. José Saramago encountered this story in Salzburg and spent 10 years writing what would prove to be his penultimate novel.
The unfolding of Solomon’s journey will allow the reader to encounter what Edward Said described as Late Style. Which is neither valedictory noise nor an easy ripeness but almost-exile, the strained relationship that an aging artist might achieve with his context in asserting command over his chosen medium.
Saramago takes the idea of omniscience and scatters it to run like beads of quicksilver through the narrative, allowing it to emerge in a quayside audience that imagines Solomon’s trunk to be a whip and his tusks to be sabres, in what an indignant Solomon might have said to a historian who described him as ‘mouse-coloured’, and in the shiver of pleasure that runs through a saint’s mummified body after a fake miracle. In one dazzling construction, a soldier who is lost finds his way back after hearing Solomon’s trumpeting and announces it to Subhro whose incredulity causes the said castaway to disappear. We are then treated to a line about the efficacy of the word plot when it comes to getting rid of such unsavoury characters.
The separation of Church and State is nullified in the novel by the simple device of administering to each a steady drubbing. A priest attempts to exorcise Solomon — the beast rewards him with a kick that leaves him unable to continue. Portugal is revealed in a series of ownership quarrels revisited with sly good humour. The novelist may even imitate the bragging of official history; we are thus told that Portugal is “a country, as even schoolchildren know, that gave new worlds to the world”. And there is a flash of anger when he considers how Portuguese is overrun at home by English in the present.
The elephant’s journey is but a pretext by which Saramago chooses to dance back and forth between the 16th century and our own — between a past when the novel was just that and a present saturated with such fiction. Of the many meditations on the nature of narrative and language that this act of whimsy allows, we will sample just one: “Thanks to the inexhaustible generosity of the imagination, we erase faults, fill lacunae as best we can, forge passages through blind alleys that will remain stubbornly blind, and invent keys to doors that never even had locks”.
By Poorva Rajaram
A book that means a lot to you?
I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics. It’s a compilation with all the big guys: Jay Leno, Chris Rock and others. It puts you in their perspective. I also loved Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom because it was written very, very simply. It didn’t try too hard for an emotional reaction.
Books that taught you about comedy?
I just need to read the newspaper in India to find sources for comedy. People do some incredibly stupid things and I’m an observational comic.
Humour books you recommend?
Most are very clichéd. Woody Allen or Bill Cosby, because they don’t try to be too funny and write personally.
Your favourite genre?
Fantasy fiction. I travel a lot. So when I’m at an airport or in hotel lounges reading on my iPad, I want something that takes me far away. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are favourites.
Your favourite character?
Sherlock Holmes. He is a maddening character, compulsive and creative amidst the foggy London setting. My dog is called Dr Watson, I imagine he is my assistant while solving crimes.
An overrated book? And why?
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. The secret is that the book sucks. I’ve never been a big motivational books fan. If you make it to a bookstore, you’re motivated!
A book you wish you had written?
I wish I came up with Calvin and Hobbes — I was that kid with the overactive imagination. I love most comics: Asterix, Tintin, New Yorker cartoons.