For the whims of humanity

José Saramago on a trip to Salzburg, Austria, went to a restaurant called “The Elephant” and, inside, stands before an important statue representing the journey of an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna. This encounter aroused a great curiosity that led him to know his story, but could not find too much information about it. Mainly, the data found is based on what happened with this elephant after arriving in Vienna after a long walk, and history tells us that the purpose of this travel was that the animal reaches where live its new owner moves, the Archduke Maximilian II of Austria, after being given away by the kings of Portugal. However, the limited information available on this story served Saramago as the basis for the fictional construction of this elephant’s journey through Europe in the 16th century. Small fragments of a historical episode that will allow the Portuguese writer to finish a fiction in which its protagonist is an Asian elephant called Solomon.

The story is focused mainly in the caravan that is organized according to the needs of the elephant, while traveling through Europe and at the same time that humans discuss and defend their ideas or rights over the custody of Solomon. In this wide range of personalities built by Saramago, some voices acquire greater strength when imposing their thinking.

Such is the case of the commander for whom at first the task entrusted by his King was humiliating. However, throughout the trip, he will end up being astonished and fond of the elephant. Another notorious voice is that of the animal’s caretaker who, although he claims not to know everything about the nature of the elephant, becomes a spokesman for his stomach and body to ensure compliance with his basic needs. In this way, there is also a constant questioning about who is the one who really drives the caravan: either is the commander with his inherent power over others, or they are the whims of the elephant with his routine, his breaks and his needs. With these particular elements, the story of Solomon’s trip makes it possible to construct cultural adjustments of displacement.

The mammal that embarks on an epic journey through Europe not only crosses the history of the time but also questions us as human beings. It is for this reason that the narrator evokes a crucial reflection through the protagonist: what saves us is the good character of the elephants, especially the natives of India. They think it is necessary to have a lot of patience to help human beings, even when we chase them and kill them to remove their ivory.

In The Journey of the Elephant, it is evidenced once again how literary fictions configure representations of the animal that come to “nullify” this apparent and discussed distinction between the human and the in-human. Hence, Saramago reaffirms a constant criticism towards this understanding that his novel interprets as a plausible “human nature”, and with a much more direct reference to his reflection on humanity, he affirm that “the hard experience of life proved that not advisable to rely too much in human nature, in general”.

Portuguese Nobel Literature laureate Jose Saramago speaks during a news conference to present his latest novel “El viaje del Elefante” (Elephant travel) in Madrid December 16, 2008. REUTERS/Rocio Pelaez (SPAIN)

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