Two years before his death at 87 in June, José Saramago—voice of peasant sensibility and hyper-modern stylist, unrepentant Marxist, and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature—completed his last novel, now available in English. It’s more a fairy tale than a novel, certainly not the sort of searing social commentary that made his reputation in works such as Blindness. But Saramago’s take on a remarkable historical fact—the slow progress of an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551, a wedding gift from the king of Portugal to the archduke of Austria—is as much a satire, albeit far funnier and more gentle than most, as anything he ever wrote.
Saramago is well-known for his all-encompassing view of creation, the way in which dogs often have a major presence in his novels, the better to remind readers that humans are not the only creatures who matter (or feel, or even think). Naturally, that rings true even more for his elephant, a beast as kindly as any human in the tale—when, affronted, he kicks a priest trying to exorcize a supposed demon, the elephant is careful to break no bones—and often notably smarter, as befits his name, Solomon. He’s at least as much a leading character as his philosophical Indian driver, who goes by Subhro until the Austrians conﬁrm his utter ﬁsh-out-of-water status by renaming him Fritz.
The Elephant’s Journey is, in a very real sense, Saramago’s late-in-life musing on his craft. He constantly breaks into the narrative, on one occasion to explain that many things happen not quite by chance but because one word follows “sweetly and naturally” after another, and so drives the story in a new direction. Or to praise the virtues of onomatopoeia: when a man on a mist-shrouded path disappears from sight, Saramago notes: “He went plof. Imagine if we’d had to provide a detailed description. It would have taken at least 10 pages. Plof.” But it’s also a charming story, a Renaissance-style human comedy reminiscent of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. For a great writer’s epitaph, it doesn’t get any better than that.
- Brian Bethune
In a story desperately lacking heroes, On the Farm’s greatest revelations concern the women who managed to escape Willie Pickton. The hitchhiker, for example, who stabbed the serial killer with a pencil, gouged his eye with her thumb and leapt from his van. He watched her run, “laughing his head off.”
Pickton, as the skilled investigative journalist Stevie Cameron tells it, is a psychopath of the first order, who both loves women and loves killing them. Much of the new ground she covers concerns his childhood, a kind of portrait of a serial killer as a young man. He was dirt poor, stank of pig manure and dead animals, never bathed or changed clothes, and was mercilessly taunted for it. His mother Louise was a gem—she “didn’t pay attention to her teeth and eventually most of them rotted out,” Cameron writes. “She lost most of her hair and covered the remaining wisps with a kerchief. Her chin sprouted so many hairs she developed a little goatee.”
Perhaps no writer knows this story better than Cameron, who, starting in 2002, lived part-time in Vancouver to chronicle it. This book, her second on the subject, will go down as the definitive resource on the Pickton affair. It clocks in, however, at a daunting 700 pages—its greatest weakness. The behaviour of Vancouver police—the childish jealousies, turf wars and stall tactics—is worth recounting in all its pathetic glory, a lesson to the force and police elsewhere. But much else could have been left out.
Pickton, Cameron writes, in answer to the questions still swirling around the case, was neither stupid nor incapable of single-handedly murdering 48 women—although those closest to him, she makes clear, knew exactly what was going on.
- Nancy Macdonald