Sos Del Rey Cotholoica, Aragon, Spain
A Portuguese proverb, “God writes straight with cooked lines,” is the best line and a good summary of The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The proverb, which means that strange events become clear with time, is a metaphor for the book, the story of the transport of an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in the fall of 1551.
Owned by King Joao III of Portugal, Solomon, the elephant, is given as a wedding gift to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. King Joao is speaking with his secretary.
Ah, no one can outdo your highness in dialectic and response. Although there are those who say that the fates who presided over my birth did not endow me with a gift for words, Words are not everything, my lord, going to visit the elephant Solomon today is a poetic act and will perhaps be seen as such in the future. What is a poetic act, asked the king, No one knows, my lord, we only recognize it when it happens, So far, though, I have only mentioned my intention of visiting Solomon, Ah, but the word of a king would, I’m sure, be enough, That I believe, is what rhetoricians call irony, Forgive me, your highness, You are forgiven, secretary, and if all your senses are of like gravity, your place in heaven is guaranteed.
Portuguese soldiers journey with Solomon and his mahout Subhro overland to Valladolid where the Archduke and his new wife take over and escort the pair by boat to Genoa, across the Alps to Innsbruck and down the Danube toward Vienna.
Like any good travel tale, The Elephant’s Journey is filled with bad weather, poor sleeping conditions, questionable provisions and dangerous conditions including wolves in Iberia and the threat of avalanche in the Brenner Pass.
One day, it starts to rain.
It isn’t true that heaven and the heavens are indifferent to our preoccupations and desires. They’re constantly sending us signs and warnings, and the only reason we don’t add good advice to that list is that experience, heaven’s and ours, has shown that memory, which isn’t anyone’s strong point, is best not overburdened with too much detail. Signs and warnings are easy to interpret if we remain alert, as the commanding officer discovered when, at one point along the route, the convoy was caught in a heavy drenching shower. For the men engaged in the hard work of pushing the ox-cart, that rain was a blessing, an act of charity for the suffering to which the lower classes have always been subject. Solomon and his mahout subhro also enjoyed that sudden cooling rain, although this did not prevent subhro from thinking that, in future, he really could do with and umbrella in such situation, perched up high and unprotected from the water falling from the clouds, especially on the road to vienna.
This highly improbable endeavor that lasts a good three months and involves the labor of dozens of porters, soldiers, oxen and horses actually took place. Knowledge of the historical journey was itself the result of an unusual circumstance which came about when Saramago visited a Portuguese professor in Salzburg, Austria who took him to a restaurant that displayed wooden figures of buildings and monuments from cities along the route that Solomon journeyed.
Saramago uses his powers as omniscient narrator to observe the social disparities between royalty and the rest of the entourage, especially Subhro who rides above everyone on top of the elephant but who is totally dependent on the good graces of the archduke. The elephant, on the other hand, never complains. He endures an attempt at exorcism, agrees to perform a “miracle” by kneeling before a saint’s stature and saves a child from trampling by wrapping his trunk around her and raising her in the air. But the people around Solomon are changed by him or by observing Solomon and Subhro together, resulting in respect for the elephant handler and even friendship.
What the reader does not know is that the real Solomon was born to royalty in a town in Sri Lanka that was a Portuguese trading post. So Solomon has already traveled from Sri Lanka to Lisbon before Saramago introduces us to him. Solomon’s fall from object of reverence in Sri Lanka to the back of the royal stables in Lisbon is something he bears stoically so long as his rather large portion of forage is consistently available.
In the Alps, a wheel on the Archduke’s carriage tears off, stopping the caravan but resulting in a fortuitous event for Solomon. The Archduke has renamed Solomon and calls him Suleiman.
With heavy snow like this, the road is always light, no one will get lost, said the sergeant … And it was true because, at that moment, the cart carrying the forage arrived, and just in time, too, because suleiman having dragged his four tons up those mountains, desperately needed to recharge his energies. …. When one thinks about it, the accident to the archducal coach could only have been an act of divine providence. As that never sufficiently praised popular wisdom teaches us, and as has more than once been shown, god writes straight on crooked lines, and even seems to prefer the latter. (Italics added.)
Saramago contrasts the Portuguese – sunny and intelligent – with the Austrians – cold and hidebound – and is nostalgic for a time before modernity and globalization, which, ironically, was set off in 1497 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope.
Readers may have difficulty with Saramago’s long sentences and unusual punctuation which neglects quotation marks, capitalization and even periods. But the book is only about 200 pages long and the people, scenes, events and travel challenges move the book along and Saramago’s observations from high above give the reader something to think about along the way.