[from] The Elephant’s Journey

by Jose Saramago

It happened, early the following morning, when the soldiers were still barely awake, that an emissary from the basilica of saint anthony appeared in the camp. He had, he said, although not perhaps in these exact words, been sent by a superior of the church’s ecclesiastical team to speak to the man in charge of the elephant. Now any object three meters high can be seen from some distance away, and Suleiman almost filled the celestial vault, but, even so, the priest asked to be taken to him. The cuirassier who accompanied him shook the mahout awake, for he was still asleep, snug in his greatcoat. 

There’s a priest here to see you, he said. He chose to speak in castilian, and that was the best thing he could have done, given that the mahout’s as yet limited grasp of the german language was not sufficient for him to understand such a complex sentence. Fritz opened his mouth to ask what the priest wanted, but immediately closed it again, preferring not to create a linguistic confusion that might lead him who knows where. He got up and went over to the priest who was waiting at a prudent distance. You wish to speak to me, father, he asked, Indeed, I do, my son, replied his visitor, putting into those five words all the warmth of feeling he could muster,

  • How can I help you, father,
  • Are you a christian came the question,
  • I was baptized, but as you can see from my complexion and my features, I am not from here,
  • No, I assume you’re an indian, but that is no impediment to your being a good christian, 
  • That is not for me to say, for, as I understand it, self-praise is a shameful thing, 
  • Now, I have come to make a request, but first, I would like to know if your elephant is trained,
  • Well, he’s not trained in the sense that he can perform circus tricks, but he usually comports himself in as dignified a fashion as any self-respecting elephant, 
  • Could you make him kneel down, even if only on one knee, 
  • That is something I’ve never tried, father, but I have noticed that suleiman does kneel motu proprio when he wants to lie down, but I can’t be certain that he would do so to order, 
  • You could try, 
  • This is not the best time, father, suleiman tends to be rather bad-tempered in the morning, 
  • If it would be more convenient, I can come back later, for what brings me here is certainly not a life-or-death affair, although it would be very much in the interests of the basilica if it were to happen today, before his highness the archduke of austria leaves for the north,
  • If what happens today, if you don’t mind my asking,
  • The miracle, said the priest, putting his hands together,
  • What miracle, asked the mahout, feeling his head beginning to spin,
  • If the elephant were to kneel down at the door of the basilica, would that not seem to you a miracle, one of the great miracles of our age, asked the priest, again putting his hands together in prayer,
  • I know nothing of miracles, where I come from there have been no miracles since the world was created, for the creation, I imagine, must have been one long miracle, but then that was that,
  • So you are not a christian,
  • That’s for you to decide, father, but even though I was anointed a christian and baptized, perhaps you can still see what lies beneath,
  • And what does lie beneath,
  • Ganesh, for example, our elephant god, that one over there, flapping his ears, and you will doubtless ask me how I know that suleiman the elephant is a god, and I will respond that if there is, as there is, an elephant god, it could as easily be him as another,
  • Given that I need you to do me a favor, I forgive you these blasphemies, but, when this is over, you will have to confess,
  • And what favor do you want from me, father,
  • To take the elephant to the door of the basilica and make him kneel down there, 
  • But I’m not sure I can do that.
  • Try,…

Copyright © 2008 by Jose Saramago and Editorial Caminho, S.A, Lisbon.

English translation Copyright© 2010 by Margaret Jull Costa

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