The Elephant's Journey

by José Saramago and Margaret Jull Costa

The tale of an elephant named Solomon who travels through sixteenth century Europe, from Lisbon to Vienna.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547504391
  • ISBN-10: 054750439X
  • Pages: 224
  • Publication Date: 09/08/2010

About the book

A delightful, witty tale of friendship and adventure from prize-winning novelist José Saramago

In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. In José Saramago's remarkable and imaginative retelling, Solomon and his keeper, Subhro, begin in dismal conditions, forgotten in a corner of the palace grounds. When it occurs to the king and queen that an elephant would be an appropriate wedding gift, everyone rushes to get them ready: Subhro is given two new suits of clothes and Solomon a long overdue scrub. Accompanied by the Archduke, his new wife, and the royal guard, these unlikely heroes traverse a continent riven by the Reformation and civil wars, witnessed along the way by scholars, historians, and wide-eyed ordinary people as they make their way through the storied cities of northern Italy; they brave the Alps and the terrifying Isarco and Brenner Passes; across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Inn River; and at last, toward their grand entry into the imperial city.

About the author
José Saramago

JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Margaret Jull Costa

MARGARET JULL COSTA has established herself as the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English today.


Strange though it may seem to anyone unaware of the importance of the marital bed in the efficient workings of public administration, regardless of whether that bed has been blessed by church or state or no one at all, the first step of an elephant’s extraordinary journey to austria, which we propose to describe hereafter, took place in the royal apartments of the portuguese court, more or less at bedtime. And it is no mere accident that we chose to use the vague expression more or less. For this enables us, with admirable elegance, to avoid having to go into details of a physical and physiological nature, often sordid and almost always ridiculous, and which, set down on paper, would offend the strict catholicism of dom joão the third, king of portugal and of the algarves, and of dona catarina of austria, his wife and the future grandmother of the same dom sebastião who will go off to lead the attack on alcácer-quibir and die there during the first assault, or perhaps the second, although there are also those who say he died of an illness on the eve of battle. This is what the king, with furrowed brow, said to the queen, I’m worried about something, my lady, About what, my lord, The gift we gave to our cousin maximilian at the time of his marriage four years ago always seemed to me unworthy of his lineage and his merits, and now that we have him close to home, so to speak, in his role as regent of spain in the city of valladolid, I would like to offer him something more valuable, more striking, what do you think, my lady, A monstrance would be a good idea, my lord, a monstrance, I find, is always most welcome, perhaps because it has the virtue of combining material value and spiritual significance, Our holy church would not appreciate such liberality, it doubtless still retains in its infallible memory cousin maximilian’s confessed sympathies for the reforms of the lutheran protestants, or were they calvinists, I was never quite sure, Vade retro, satana, exclaimed the queen, crossing herself, such a thought had never even occurred to me, now I’ll have to go to confession first thing in the morning, Why tomorrow in particular, my lady, given that it is your custom to go to confession every day, asked the king, Because of the vile idea that the enemy placed on my vocal cords, oh, I can feel my throat burning as if it had been scorched by a breath from hell itself. Accustomed to the queen’s sensory excesses, the king shrugged and returned to the difficult task of finding a present that might satisfy archduke maximilian of austria. The queen was murmuring a prayer and had just begun another when, suddenly, she stopped and almost shouted out, There’s always solomon, What, asked the king, perplexed by this untimely invocation of the king of judah, Yes, my lord, solomon the elephant, And what has the elephant got to do with anything, asked the king somewhat waspishly, He could be the gift, my lord, answered the queen, standing up, euphoric and very excited, He’s not exactly an appropriate wedding present, That doesn’t matter. The king nodded slowly three times, paused and then nodded another three times, after which he said, Yes, it’s an interesting idea, It’s more than interesting, it’s a very good idea, an excellent idea, retorted the queen, unable to suppress a gesture of impatience, almost of insubordination, the creature came from india more than two years ago, and since then he’s done nothing but eat and sleep, with his water trough always full and a constant supply of food, it’s as if he were a kept beast, but one who’ll never earn his keep, That’s hardly the poor creature’s fault, there’s no suitable work for him here, unless we were to send him to the docks on the river tagus to transport planks, but the poor thing would only suffer, because his professional specialty is transporting felled trees, so much better suited to the curve of his trunk, Send him off to vienna, then, But how, asked the king, That’s not our affair, once cousin maximilian is the owner, it will be a matter for him to resolve, he is, I assume, still in valladolid, As far as I know, yes, Obviously, solomon would have to travel to valladolid on foot, he has the legs for it after all, And then on to vienna as well, he’ll have no alternative, It’s a long way, said the queen, A very long way, agreed the king gravely, and added, I’ll write to cousin maximilian tomorrow, and if he accepts, we’ll have to agree on dates and ascertain certain facts, for example, when he intends leaving for vienna, and how many days it would take for solomon to travel from lisbon to valladolid, after that, it’s up to him, we wash our hands of the affair, Yes, we wash our hands, said the queen, but deep inside, which is where the contradictions of the self do battle, she felt a sudden sadness at the thought of sending solomon off to such distant lands and into the care of strangers.

Early the following morning, the king summoned his secretary, pêro de alcáçova carneiro, and dictated a letter that did not come out well at the first attempt, nor at the second or the third, and in the end it had to be handed over entirely to his secretary, who had the necessary rhetorical skills as well as a knowledge of the etiquette and epistolary formulae used between sovereigns, all of which he had learned at the best of all possible schools, namely, from his father, antónio carneiro, from whom he had inherited the post. The resulting letter was perfect as regards both penmanship and argument, not even omitting the theoretical possibility, diplomatically expressed, that the gift might not be to the liking of the archduke, who would, nevertheless, find it extremely hard to reply in the negative, for the king of portugal also stated, in a key passage in the letter, that there was nothing in the whole of his kingdom as precious as the elephant solomon, both because he represented the unifying force of the divine creation that connects and establishes a kinship between all the species, why, some even say that man himself was made out of what was left over after the elephant had been created, and because of the symbolic, intrinsic and worldly values that the creature embodied. When the letter had been signed and sealed, the king summoned his master of the horse, a gentleman who enjoyed his complete confidence and to whom he first summarized the contents of the missive, then ordered him to select an escort worthy of his rank, but one, above all, that would prove equal to the responsibility of the mission with which he was being charged. The gentleman kissed the hand of the king, who, with all the solemnity of an oracle, spoke these sibylline words, Be as swift as the north wind and as sure as the flight of the eagle, Yes, my lord. Then, the king adopted quite a different tone and offered some pieces of practical advice, I don’t need to remind you to change horses as often as proves necessary, that is what staging-posts are for, and this is no time for false economies, I will give instructions for the stables to be supplied with more horses, and one other thing, I think you should, if you can, in order to gain time, try to sleep on your horse while you gallop along the roads of castile. The master of the horse did not understand the king’s little joke, or else preferred to let it pass, and merely said, Your highness’s orders will be carried out to the letter, I pledge my word and my life on it, and then he withdrew, walking backwards and bowing every three steps. No one could have a finer master of the horse, said the king. The secretary decided not to give voice to the adulatory sentiment that would consist in saying that the king’s master of the horse could hardly be anything else or behave any differently, ...


"It would be hard to more highly recommend a novel to be downed in a single draft…Simply, this books flows, and keeps on flowing."

--The New York Times

"His most optimistic, playful, humorous and magical book, a grace note written near the end of his life...The Elephant's Journey is a tale rich in irony and empathy, regularly interrupted by witty reflections on human nature and arch commentary on the powerful who insult human dignity."

-- Los Angeles Times

"Saramago...spun this whimsical yet compulsively readable's a perfect example of why [he] will be remembered as a master of surreal, enchanting prose."

-- GQ

"A picaresque romp that gleefully skewers the benighted souls clinging to outmoded worldviews while breathtaking new realities unfold right in front of them."

-- Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel