José Saramago's new novel, The Elephant's Journey, is forthcoming from Harvill Secker.

Thicker than elephant skin

There is no wind, although the mist seems to form slow whirlpools as if boreas himself were blowing it down from the far north and from the lands of eternal ice. However, to be honest, given the delicacy of the situation, this is hardly the moment for someone to be honing his prose in order to make some, frankly, not very original poetic point. By now, the people travelling with the caravan will have realized that someone is missing, indeed two of them will probably have volunteered to go and save the poor castaway, an action that would be most welcome if it weren't for the reputation as a coward that will dog him for the rest of his days, Honestly, the public voice will say, imagine him just sitting there, waiting for someone to rescue him, some people have no shame at all. It's true that he had been sitting down, but now he's standing up and has courageously taken the first step, right foot first, to drive away the evil spells cast by fate and its powerful allies, chance and coincidence, however, his left foot has grown suddenly hesitant, and who can blame it, because the ground is invisible, as if a new tide of mist had just begun to roll in. With his third step, he can no longer see his own hands held out in front of him as if to keep his nose from bumping against some unexpected door. It was then that another idea occurred to him, what if the road curved this way and that, and the direction he had taken, in what he hoped would be a straight line, led him into desert places that would mean perdition for both soul and body, in the case of the latter with immediate effect. And, O unhappy fate, without even a dog to lick away his tears when the great moment arrived. He again considered turning back to ask for shelter in the village until the bank of mist lifted of its own accord, but now, completely disoriented, with as little idea of where the cardinal points might be, as if he were in some entirely unfamiliar place, he decided that his best option was to sit down on the ground again and wait for destiny, chance, fate, any or all of them together, to guide those selfless volunteers to the tiny patch of ground on which he was sitting, as on an island in the ocean sea, with no means of communication. Or, more appropriately, like a needle in a haystack. Within three minutes, he was fast asleep. What a strange creature man is, so prone to terrible insomnias over mere nothings and yet capable of sleeping like a log on the eve of a battle. And so it was. He fell into a deep sleep, and it's quite likely that he would still be sleeping now if, somewhere in the mist, solomon had not unleashed a thunderous trumpeting whose echoes must have been heard on the distant shores of the ganges. Still groggy after his abrupt awakening, he could not make out just where it was coming from, that foghorn come to save him from an icy death or, worse, from being eaten by wolves, because this is a land of wolves, and a man, alone and unarmed, is helpless against a whole pack of them or, indeed, against one.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.



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