"The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it's not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear. . ."
When he died last month, the man who wrote those words in The Elephant's Journey, José Saramago, was an old man, 87 years old. His preoccupations and politics and passions might seem to belong to a past age: a diehard communist impatient of dictators, subversive of orthodoxies, disrespectful of international corporations, peasant-born in a marginal country and identifying himself always with the powerless, a radical who lived on into an age when even liberals are spoken of as leftist . . . But the still more intransigent radicalism of his art makes it impossible to dismiss him from the busy chatrooms of the present. He got ahead of us; he is ahead of us. His work belongs to our future. I take comfort in this. As we patiently lift stones in the endless fields of modern literature, we must expect scorpions and grubs, but it is now certain that, at least once, an elephant has appeared.
Acceptance of a Nobel prize is an almost irresistible invitation to one of Shelley's unacknowledged legislators to do a bit of legislating. Saramago's Nobel speech in 1998 was characteristic in its stubborn self-reference and limitation. He talked about himself and his works. He talked, however, with a hard-won simplicity that allowed him to say large things quietly. He sounded like a thoughtful, serious man talking to a friend. Having spoken of his grandparents, Portuguese peasant villagers, and of characters in his early novels, he went on to say: "It was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us. The only thing I am not sure of having assimilated satisfactorily is something that the hardship of those experiences turned into virtues in those women and men: a naturally austere attitude towards life. Having in mind, however, that the lesson learned still after more than twenty years remains intact in my memory, that every day I feel its presence in my spirit like a persistent summons, I haven't lost, not yet at least, the hope of meriting a little more the greatness of those examples of dignity proposed to me in the vast immensity of the plains of Alentejo."
And, calling himself "the apprentice", he said of perhaps his most powerful book: "Blind. The apprentice thought, 'We are blind', and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures."
In the last phrase of this eloquent sentence, Saramago doesn't say fellow-men, but fellow-creatures. To him "man" is not the sole subject of human interest, in whom all value and meaning inheres, but a member of a large household. Saramago's reminder to us that we aren't the be-all and end-all of creation is, usually, a dog. I developed a simple ranking system for his fiction: the books with a dog are better than the ones with no dog; the more important the dog, the better the book.
In The Elephant's Journey his reminder of the importance of the nonhuman is on a far larger scale. So it isn't surprising that I rank it very high in his work, and that it immediately, with no effort at all, joined the more forbidding novels that I have come to love best – The Stone Raft, Blindness, The Cave.
History attests that in 1551, an elephant made the journey from Lisbon to Vienna, escorted first by officers of King João III of Portugal, then by officers of the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Solomon the elephant and his mahout had already made a long sea voyage from Goa and spent a couple of years standing about in a pen in Lisbon, before setting off for Valladolid as a present from the king to the archduke, who travelled with him to Italy by ship and across the Alps to Vienna. In the novel, Solomon and his mahout Subhro (whom the archduke renames, with true Habsburg infelicity, Fritz) proceed through various landscapes at an unhurried pace, attended by various functionaries and military men, and meeting along the way with villagers and townsfolk who variously interpret the sudden enigma of an elephant entering their lives. And that's the story.
It is extremely funny. Old Saramago writes with a masterfully light hand, and the humour is tender, a mockery so tempered by patience and pity that the sting is gone though the wit remains vital.
The episode that begins with the mahout discussing religion with the Portuguese captain is particularly endearing. Having explained that he is a Christian, more or less, Subhro undertakes to tell the soldiers about Ganesh. You obviously know a good deal about Hinduism, says the captain. More or less, sir, more or less, says the mahout, and goes on to explain how Shiva cut off his son Ganesh's head and replaced it with an elephant's head. "Fairy tales," says a soldier, and the mahout says: "Like the one about the man who, having died, rose on the third day." Peasants from the nearby village are listening with interest. They have agreed: "There's not much to an elephant, really, when you've walked round him once, you've seen all there is to see." But the religious discussion arouses them and they wake up their priest to inform him of the important news: "God is an elephant, father."
The priest sagely replies: "God is in all his creatures." The spokesman retorts: "But none of them is god." "That's all we'd need," says the priest. The peasants argue till the priest settles it by promising to go and exorcise the elephant: "Together," he tells them, "we will fight for our holy religion, and just remember, the people united will never be defeated." Next day he pretends to perform an exorcism, but he cheats, using pig-Latin and unblessed water; and the elephant punishes him for it; or at any rate, for whatever reason, though usually a polite animal, it kicks him, though gently. The whole episode is a series of contained miracles of absurdity, quiet laughter rising out of a profound, resigned, affectionate wisdom.
In his understanding of people Saramago brings us something very rare – a disillusion that allows affection and admiration, a clear-sighted forgiveness. He doesn't expect too much of us. He is perhaps closer in spirit and in humour to our first great novelist, Cervantes, than any novelist since. When the dream of reason and the hope of justice are endlessly disappointed, cynicism is the easy way out; but Saramago the stubborn peasant will not take the easy way out.
Of course he was no peasant; he was a cultivated and sophisticated man, an editor and journalist, for years a city-dweller; he loved Lisbon, and he deals in many novels with the issues of urban/industrial life. Yet he looks on that life from a place outside the city, a place where people make their own living with their own hands. He offers no idyllic pastoral regression, but a realistic sense of where and how common people genuinely connect with what is left of our common world.
In the Nobel talk, he said: "As I could not and did not aspire to venture beyond my little plot of cultivated land, all I had left was the possibility of digging down, underneath, towards the roots. My own but also the world's, if I can be allowed such an immoderate ambition." That hard, patient digging is what gives so light and delightful a book as this its depth and weight. It is no mere fable, as the story of an elephant's journey through the follies and superstitions of 16th-century Europe might well be. It has no moral. There is no happy ending. The elephant Solomon will get to Vienna, yes; and then two years later he will die. But his footprints will remain in the reader's mind: deep, round impressions in the dirt, not leading to the Austrian imperial court or anywhere else yet known, but indicating, perhaps, a more permanently rewarding direction to be followed.