His ideas are lucid, his humour winsome, but José Saramago is no easy read. Portugal’s greatest contemporary novelist began his writing career late, in his fifties, after working as a mechanic, and later in publishing and journalism. Nevertheless, by the time of his death in June, at the age of eighty-seven, he had managed to clock up nearly thirty novels, collections of poems and essays. In 1998, he won the Nobel Prize – despite opposition from the Vatican, which branded him ‘an unreconstructed communist’. Saramago’s final novel, Cain, has yet to be published in English.
This, his penultimate, draws on a true story and irresistible premise: the gift in 1551 of an Asian elephant, from King João III of Portugal to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian II. Historical accounts suggest that the Asian elephant – mischievously named Solomon after the Turkish sultan – was