Portugal: Margaret Jull Costa


The Elephant's Journey, Jose Saramago

The Elephant's JourneySolomon the elephant’s life is about to be upturned. For two years he has been in Lisbon, brought from the Portuguese colonies in India. Now King Dom João III wishes to make him a wedding gift for the Hapsburg archduke, Maximilian. It’s a nice idea, since it avoids the Portuguese king offending his Lutheran cousin with an overtly Catholic present. But it means the poor pachyderm must travel from Lisbon to Vienna on foot – the only option when transporting a large animal such a long way.

So begins a journey that will take the stalwart Solomon across the dusty plains of Castile, over the sea to Genoa and up to northern Italy where, like Hannibal’s elephants before him, he must cross the snowy Alps. Accompanying him is his quiet keeper, Subhro, who watches while – at every place they stop – people try to turn Solomon into something he is not. From worker of holy miracles to umbrella stand, the unassuming elephant suffers the many attempts of humans to impose meaning on what they don’t understand.

In Memoriam José Saramago 16 November 1922 – 18 June 2010





Jose Saramago’s award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa suggests six Portuguese books you really should read

The Lusiads (1572) by Luís de Camões
Portugal’s great epic poem, a mythologised version of the Portuguese voyages of discovery during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
[Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics; trans. Landeg White]

Travels in My Homeland (1846) by Almeida Garrett
A novel-cum-travelogue set at the time of the battle for the Portuguese throne between brothers Dom Pedro and Dom Miguel.
 [Publisher: Peter Owen; trans. J.M. Parker]

The Maias (1888) by Eça de Queiroz
A superb portrait of a society in decline and of a doomed love affair by Portugal’s greatest nineteenth-century novelist and told in Eça’s brilliant and engaging prose. He has an eye for the absurd that is irresistible to the English sense of humour. [Publisher: Dedalus; trans. Margaret Jull Costa]

The Book of Disquiet (1982) by Fernando Pessoa
Portugal’s greatest poet died in 1935, but this, pretty much his only prose work, was published years later when scholars pieced it together from typed and handwritten scraps found in the trunk he left behind. There are several versions and several translations, but whichever you choose, you cannot fail to be captivated by these brief, melancholy meditations on the wondrous futility of human life.
[Publisher: Serpent’s Tail; trans. Margaret Jull Costa; also available as The Book of Disquietude: Pub. Sheep Meadow Press; trans. Richard Zenith]

Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) by José Saramago
Saramago’s incredibly evocative and intelligent novel brings Pessoa’s fictional creation, Ricardo Reis, back from Brazil to the prim Lisbon of 1936, where he finds and loses love because he himself is incapable of love. Pessoa, his creator, often keeps him company, still wearing the suit in which he was buried a few weeks earlier. [Publisher: Harvill; trans. Giovanni Pontiero]

What can I do when everything’s on fire? (2001) by António Lobo Antunes
Set in one of Lisbon’s seamier bairros, the main narrator – the son of a flamboyant drag queen – struggles to piece together his past. As with all Antunes’ work, this is a novel obsessed with memory and the lies we tell ourselves.
[Publisher: Norton; trans. Gregory Rabassa]