Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jose Saramago, The Elephant's Journey (2008)

A portion of the oeuvre of Jose Saramago revolves around themes of life and death. But even in the context of a novel like All The Names , about the custodian of national records of birth and death, the story is really about a person's life. And as we just saw in the previous post discussing The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the story of the last nine months of a man's life and his conversations with another man who has just died, the story is really about relationships among the living. In Saramago's Death With Interruptions, death takes a holiday and the religious institutions are confronted with the prospect of real eternal life, leading the institution to realize that if we don't start dying again "we have no future."

The Elephant's Journey, Saramago's final novel, published two years before he died in 2010, is not as philosophically deep as his earlier novels, but this story of an elephant's journey from India to Lisbon to Vienna during the 16th century --- a historical event fictionalized by Saramago, because there is no detailed record of the journey that has been left behind --- ends in the death of the elephant two years after his arrival in Vienna. For Saramago, however, the elephant's death merely affirms life and our memory of life: the Austrian Archduke Maximilian, who received the elephant as a gift from King Joao III of Portugal, writes to the king to inform him of the elephant's death and states "that the inhabitants of Vienna will never forget [the elephant], for he had saved the life of a child on the very day he arrived in [Vienna]."

For Saramago, the measure of a life's journey is how well we "master the art of living" --- a phrase to be sure for which there will be more disagreements than agreements on the appropriate metric for this measure. In an entry in The Notebook (see September 28, 2010 post), Saramago writes about the Italian journalist Robert Saviano, who received death threats for having written a book denouncing the Camorra, a criminal organization. He says, "I think of Roberto Saviano whose head they would have on a plate, and I wonder whether one day we will wake up from the nightmare that is life for some many people, persecuted for telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I feel humble, almost insignificant, faced with the dignity and courage of the writer and journalist Roberto Saviano, the man who has mastered the art of living."

Just a few nuggets from The Elephant's Journey worth quoting, and they connect to a theme about human creativity and storytelling that is reflected in previous posts, including the most recent post.

"It's hard to understand just why the archduke maximilian should have decided to make such a journey at this time of year, but that is how it's set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where me might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar." And thus is historical fiction. The Bible stories too --- the work of redactors, editors, and novelists, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties because it was their right to invent and fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost."

And finally, "People say a lot of things, and not all of them are true, but that is what human beings are like, they can as easily believe that the hair of an elephant, marinated in a little oil, can cure baldness, as imagine that they carry within them the one solitary light that will lead them along life's paths, even through mountain passes." Saramago, a master storyteller, knows that stories that defy human experience are not all true, like the conversation about Subhro's story about a cow that battles a pack of wolves told at that point in The Elephant's Journey, when the Portuguese are preparing to hand over their king's gift of the elephant to the Austrians. "[W]ho told you the story [about the cow and the wolves]? A Galician. And where did he hear it? He must have heard it from someone else, Or read it. As far as I know, he can't read. All right, perhaps he heard it and memorized it. Possibly, but I was simply interested in retelling it as best I could. You have an excellent memory, and the language in which you told the story was far from ordinary. Thank you, said Subhro, but now I would like to know which bits of the story remain unclear to you and failed to ring true? The first is that we are given to understand or, rather, it is explicitly stated that the struggle between the cow and the wolves lasted twelve days and twelve night, which would mean that wolves attacked the cow on the very first night and only withdrew on the twelfth, presumably having sustained some losses. We weren't there to see what happened. No, but anyone who knows anything about wolves would know that, although they live in a pack, they hunt alone. What are you getting at? asked Subhro. I'm saying that the cow wouldn't have been able to withstand a concerted attack by three or four wolves for one hour, let alone twelve days. So the whole story of the battling cow is a lie. No, the lie consists only in the exaggerations, linguistic affectations and half-truths that try to pass themselves off as whole-truths." Here, Saramago does not necessarily equate the novelist, the fiction writer, and the liar --- unless the novelist tries to pass his story off as "whole-truths." Tough words for some believers. But Saramago, as evidenced by the reaction to his The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, understood this.

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