In José Saramago's novella The Tale of the Unknown Island, the protagonist - an unnamed everyman figure - asks a king for the gift of a boat so that he may go out "in search of the unknown island". The king is sceptical: after all, isn't it well established that no more unknown islands exist? But the man stands his ground in a remark rich with metaphorical meaning, he insists that there is always another unknown island to be discovered.
Finally the man has his way. The story gives him a love interest: the humble cleaning lady of the palace, who decides that after a lifetime of swabbing the royal floors she would rather be part of a voyage. No other crew member can be found, but this does not seem to be a problem. The story takes its leave of us with an image of the two lovers painting the name of the boat on the prow. "Around midday, with the tide," the narrator finishes, "The Unknown Island finally set out to sea, in search of itself."
Of the dozens of great exponents of the novel in the 20th century, Saramago, who died in June at the age of 87, was one of the few who really made the form his own. In his books the story never arrives to us neatly organised, crafted, and finished, cleansed of narrative detritus. Rather, like the boat in Unknown Island, it is always in search of itself, trying to arrive at an understanding of itself, remarking on its own difficulties as it goes on.
At first this puzzles us. Then, when we see the possibilities inherent in the method, it delights us. The narrator is always the most powerful presence in Saramago's novels, now speeding the action along, now slowing it down, making a luminous observation one moment ("We are, more and more, our own defects and not our qualities"), then succumbing to a page or two of pure pedantry. The narrator's love of irony, sympathy for the marginalised, and undercutting of the grand narratives of history establishes a direct line between him and the author, a lifelong and outspoken communist.
Most distinctive in Saramago's work, though, is the style. His narrators revel in the role of master of ceremonies, insisting on it through the very form of their prose, which swallows up the talk of the characters into long, rolling, idiosyncratic sentences. The typical Saramago sentence can seem almost Jamesian in its love of ripples and qualifications, but it employs no other punctuation than the full-stop and the comma and creates the illusion of something spoken rather than written. In Saramago, modernism meets the folktale.
This narrative method naturally risks falling into self-indulgence and corrosive doubt - the kind of arid self-reflexivity visible, for instance, in the French nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute. But Saramago vaults this chasm by virtue of the scale and the thrilling conceits of his stories, which roam widely over Portuguese and European history and are never happier than when juggling metaphysical speculations. In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, a proofreader of a historical work changes the entire shape of the Portuguese history by inserting the word "not" at a crucial moment in the text. Blindness imagines an unnamed city struck by a mass epidemic of sightlessness, thereby illustrating just how fragile and hard-won is the civic peace that a portion of humankind now takes for granted. In Death At Intervals, death (a character, named, like most of Saramago's characters, with her initial in lowercase) suddenly abandons her work of taking human beings away from this world. First there is delight at the prospect of immortality, and then consternation as the larger implications of eternal life start to emerge.
Saramago's new novel, published posthumously, is called The Elephant's Journey. After this we can expect one more book, Cain, as yet untranslated, and perhaps some unfinished or unpublished work. The present novel is translated by his excellent long-time translator Margaret Jull Costa, and brings all the familiar pleasures of his voice, seen here filling out a diverting little story about a pachyderm and its mahout who live in one strange land and travel to another. For two years Solomon the elephant, a gift to King Dom Joao III from one of his colonies in India, has been languishing in Lisbon along with his devoted keeper Subhro. Solomon's arrival, we hear, initially caused a great stir in Lisbon life before he fell, like all fashionable new diversions, from favour with the elite.
It is the middle of the 16th century and Protestantism has recently shaken the foundations of Western Christendom. Dom Joao III wants to send a present to the Duke of Hapsburg, Maximilian, who has embraced the new faith. But the gift cannot have any Catholic associations, and so Dom Joao fixes - taking the irresolute suggestion of his flighty wife - on Solomon. The elephant must now travel on foot, by land and by sea, down rivers and over the Alps, to Vienna. And so we embark on a picaresque tale in the manner of Cervantes, to whose school Saramago certainly belongs, albeit told in slow motion, as if keeping time with the stately pace of its protagonist, who often holds up the travelling party because he wants to take a nap.
Solomon causes a great stir in towns and villages along the route. He becomes, in a sense, the star of the old fable about the elephant and the three blind men, a screen onto which human illusions are projected. Some villagers, overhearing bits of a conversation about the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesha, come to believe that Solomon is God. One priest nearly loses his life in trying to exorcise the devil from Solomon's soul. Another tries to enlist the elephant in performing a cunningly man-made miracle, just so that the authority of the Catholic Church may be reaffirmed (many of Saramago's best jokes are those aimed at the self-importance of church and state).
But the book's pleasures are mainly rooted in the narrator's playful spirit and his rejection - repeatedly played for laughs - of most of the rules of conventional novelistic exposition. We hear a voice that is gnomic, dryly witty, rich in proverbs and zany maxims ("The same thing happens with good ideas, and, on occasions, with bad ones, as happens with democritus' atoms or with cherries in a basket, they come along linked one to the other"). It's a voice given to gusts of whimsy and anachronistic observation, fastidiously laying out all the possibilities of a situation with qualifiers ("in the unlikely but not impossible event of", "always assuming that"), and then breaking up this rhythm with sudden pistol shots: "He went plof and vanished. Onomatopoeia can be so very handy." When I came across the sentence "The snow began to fall" at the end of one chapter, I was amazed at how dramatic it sounded. Jull Costa's English has an energy and a verve that rings in the ears long after the book has been put down. Her translation, like many other translations of linguistically rich books, also expands the common vocabulary and sonic possibilities of the target language - employing words and rhythms that are beyond the range of most contemporary novelists in English.
"It must be said that history is always selective," says the narrator at one point, "and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar." This is as close as Saramago comes to articulating a philosophy for his fiction. In The Elephant's Journey, it is the stoical mahout Subhro whose experience - like that of other figures outside the grand narratives of the past, like Raimundo Silva in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, or Baltasar and Blimunda in the novel of that name - allows us to access what the Indian historian Ranajit Guha calls "the small voice of history". Such works should never go plof and vanish.
Chandrahas Choudhury is an Indian novelist (Arzee the Dwarf, 2009) currently in residence at the University of Iowa