The Elephant’s Journey

The Elephant’s Journey is rather hard to classify as real. Although its settings did exist, Saramago has hardly taken pains to be accurate in his stereotypical characerisations. The king is the standard indecisive buffoon huffed up on his own sense of power “” The queen a overly emotional fop who is ultimately very self centred and despite claiming to love Soloman is unwilling to suffer the pain of watching him go, instead preferring to ”  The court advisor is an archetypical character, the talented lacky who is all smiles and tudes to the king whilst he secretly pulls the strings “”. The same can be said for the dirty, unkempt Indian Subhro the stereotypical savage plucked from his home land living no better than the animal that he keeps, “”.  All of these recognisable characters form part of a feeling that this isn’t even a mildly realistic depiction of life at the time but rather an almost fairytale like story created to delight its audience.


The elephant itself certainly supports this through his bizzarre semi-characerisation. Saramago is careful never to truly anthropomorphise Soloman nor allow the reader directly into his thoughts. “” This creates an air of mystery about him, the reader is given the sense that this is no ordinary beast by his actions, such as when he saves the little girl from the river. This would imply a sense of benevolence that is never explicitly stated, again creating the sense of a hidden character beneath his rough, hairy exterior.

The First Person and Other Stories is an inbetween point a different case. Again, one must be careful not to overgeneralise the stories and force an overarching judgement on all of them, especially as there are a real mixture of stories included, some which feel realistic, some which don’t. Nothing seems overly odd or unrealistic about “The History of History, “The Second Person” or the aptly named “True Short Story”.


Stories like “Astute Fiery Luxurious” however, are quite different. Its plot revolves around the arrival of a mysterious, foul smelling package and the characters’  conviction that “there was something wrong with it” Any chance of it being ‘realistic’ are thrown within the first few pages due to their almost supernatual feeling of unease that the couple feel about the parcel. Likewise in “Writ”, the possibility of it being ‘real’ is dashed when the chapter opens with the impossible statement “I sit my fourteen year old self down opposite me at the table”.   The fact that these feel overly contrived, bizzarre or coincidental is odd given Smith’s skillful prose throughout the rest of the novel, one could easily conclude that she is too talented a writer to make such basic mistakes in the composition of so many of her narratives. The possibility that seems much more likelt is that they are not meant to feel natural or “real”, instead they are meant to make a point.


Having established the varying degrees of realism across the novels, we come to the thrust of the question and wonder do any of them offer “an account of the truth”? On the surface this doesn’t seem to be very different from whether or not they are real, after all if something is not real how can it be truth. The two are in many cases almost synomomous but there is a nuanced difference between them  that means that something can be true without being real.  Whilst Brenton Brown appears to be the only novel that comes close to presenting  an account based in fact, all three novels attempt to create an account of the truth through thematic and cultural resemblances and commentaries.



The First person and Other Stories for example, is full of the truth, even in those stories that were noted as being convoluted or unrealistic. In fact, most of them seem unrealistic because the narrative has been compromised in an attempt to convey the truth. This is a truth quite different from the truth of fact: rather than an independent, verifiable fact it is a more indefinite person belief. For one person the works of Austen might be masterful social commentaries, for another they may be self indulgent, upper middle class drivel fit only for the fire, but to each person that opionion is the truth.


If we look at the novels in the light of this extended scope, we can see that they are all offer an account of the truth. Smith’s stories work wonderfully as just stories but there is undoubtedly a greater mesh of thematic energy waiting to be unleashed. Each story seems to have been designed so that it could be read purely as a narrative, but Smith

‘s stories do more than just talk, they inspire. Take “I Know Something You Don’t” the bizzare story of how a sick boy recovers after being treated by two very different healers. On the face of it, it’s simply an intriguing tale the point of which is the ambiguity over whether or not the boy has actually been healed and if he has, who is responsible? When you dig a little deeper there are stronger allegorical themes such as the contrast between the two women, one of whom is smart, professional and polite but quite cold and unfeeling, whereas the other one is much more personable and mysterious but also more shabby and irreverent. One can interpret this in any numbers of ways and its this interpretation that creates the “truth” that the reader finds. If you assume that the second woman is responsible for the healing, the whole story might be based around the moral lesson of not judging a book by its cover and how we tend to judge competency by professionalism when the two are not necessarily related. The story “Writ” doesn’t even attempt to maintain its illusion of reality, instead allowing the absurd situation of one having with one’s past self to seem rather ordinary. Despite this lack of realism, the story serves a great deal .


Brenton Brown also gives its reader truths but they are located more firmly within the context of the book. Whilst The First Person and Other Stories largely deals with almost timeless themes, Wheatle’s novel is more concerned with the morals of the modern day. If we return again to the unusual portrayal of  ex-gang member Shaun, we can see that he is being used to make a more general point about society and reminding us that despite the front of bravado, even the least likeable people in society are still people. This is emphasised by the contrast between Shaun’s weakness- ””- and the macho image that he tries to promote- “”.


Another truth that it helps its reader to explore is the issue of redemption in the modern day. Brenton is another criminal but he is one that is making up his debt to society. He is considerate of his daughter’s feelings and, despite his intense desire to tell her, he never reveals to Brianna that he is her father.

Again Wheatle doesn’t sugar coat the issue and Brenton remains a fundamentally selfish and short tempered individual who is so consumed with lust for his own sister that he cannot stop himself from wanting her.



The truth they inspire may not be uniform amongt readers but it is still a truthful perspective. In many respects all fiction, whether modern or ancient, stirs from its page a truth for the readers but it has to be noted here that all three books are in some way affected by the intentions of their author. Although it is impossible to claim that they were all written with overarching truths to impart to their reader, the author does have a degree of control over the implications of his work.  Each of the three novels mentioned in this essay makes no effort to really hide this unconcious formation of truths within the reader, in fact they arguably encourage it. Brenton Brown immediately provokes its reader from the first sentence – “”- By doing so without any prejudice shown towards the startling nature of the statement, it asks its reader to pass their own judgement and draw their own conclusions. In other words, from the very beginning Wheatle is asking his reader to think about what is written beyond its narrative point.

June 6, 2018


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