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Book Review: The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson

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Christopher Nicholson’s new historical novel, The Elephant Keeper, is set in England in the second half of the eighteenth century. It begins in 1773 when, Tom Page, the keeper of the title, is asked by the current owner of the elephant and his employer to write a history of his association with the animal including an explanation of his own capability to communicate with it. Unsure of his abilities with the pen, Tom demurs for awhile, makes a couple of false starts and is finally encouraged to tell the story in his own way without worrying about literary niceties. With that he goes back to his beginnings and his first acquaintance with the elephant and her brother when they arrive in England and are purchased by the wealthy merchant he works for as a groom. The novel follows Tom’s experiences working with at least one of the elephants for a number of different owners, as he devotes his life to her care. Their relationship is less one of animal and trainer than it is of friends. In a very real sense, this is the love story of a man and an elephant.

Nicholson’s depiction of eighteenth century England is spot on. Class differences are clearly marked. Servants and villagers are subject to the whims of the upper classes. Benevolent aristocrats may treat them well, but all the wealthy are not benevolent. Rural life for the lower classes tended to be insulated. Cities were dirty and crime infested. Sickness and disease were constant worries, and medical treatment was more than likely to be simple quackery. Rich landowners were enthralled with a new craze for romantic landscaping, eschewing the formal gardens of earlier periods in favor of a wilder scenic vista including things like a hermit’s cottage equipped with its own hermit, a man-made lake, an obelisk. For those with a scientific bent there might be a collection of extraordinary flora and fauna. British ships were bringing new undreamed of exotica back from their journeys: everything from monkeys to bananas; though they never were able to bring back one of the mermaids so often seen by sailors. Superstition was rampant.

Not quite a picaresque novel of the kind written during the period, the novel is more a collection of incidents in the lives of Tom and the female elephant he calls Jennie, than it is a coherently plotted story. Although one might well see Tom and Jennie as a post modern commentary on the more traditional combination of the picaresque hero and his companion, Don Quixote and Sancho Pannza. Indeed, in some respect this may not be that much of a stretch. The somewhat controversial ending of the book where a modern author appears in a research facility surveying the remains of elephants that died in captivity in England reads much like something you would expect to see in modern meta-fiction. Undoubtedly there is something in the novel’s inconclusive conclusion that will remind readers of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Moreover, the novel raises an interesting aesthetic question about the relationship between truth and fiction. At the start, Tom Page is constantly concerned with providing some kind of objective truth in his writing, but he can only begin to write when he is assured that he need only deal with what he determines to be the truth. He must learn the value of subjective truth, a value that was becoming more and more prevalent in the period in which the novel is set. Add to this the idea that often you can get at truth more effectively through falsehood — a thesis set forward by a painter commissioned to paint a portrait of Jennie, when Tom complains that the painting is a purposeful misrepresentation, and later repeated by the owner of a menagerie creating tall tales about his animals. This paradoxical view of the nature of truth becomes a staple of the next century’s aesthetics.

Indeed, Tom’s own narrative gradually seems to move away from any attempt at objective truth in favor of a more subjective reality. Early in his writing, when he is credited with being able to speak to the elephant, he is quick to deny it, and explain her training. As the years go on, he begins to speak to Jennie and Jennie answers. Not only does she answer, but she comforts him when he is troubled, philosophizes about life in captivity and its parallel to the human condition. More and more as the novel progresses, she becomes the voice of wisdom. While certainly, Tom is putting his own thoughts and feelings into the mouth of the elephant, the power of those feelings is emphasized dramatically.

The Elephant Keeper is the story of one man’s devotion to the creature he loves, his refusal to listen to the complaint that she’s “only an elephant.” It is not a case of merely attributing human characteristics to animals. The world of The Elephant Keeper is one where as often as not men behave like beasts, and animals behave with honor. It is a story of a man who comes to see that there is little to distinguish between man and beast: “I feel a kinship with these creatures. We inhabit the same world; we breathe the same air, beneath the same sky…. Why do philosophers always look for differences instead of likenesses?” References throughout to the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels are not without relevance. This is a story that may well get you to talking to elephants, or horses if no elephants are handy.

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