The Story of the Vizier’s Elephant

Review

The introduction to this story published in 1947, makes its figurative quality explicit in a general statement about the particular nature of Bosnian stories. It is woven through with references to the telling of tales and blatant lies, the discrepancy between an event and its later elaboration, the need to invent what cannot be known. One of the subsidiary variations of the main theme is quite incidental, but carries wide implications.

The main line of this story is, then, the tale of a particularly ruthless vizier whose arrival in Travnik is preceded by terrible accounts of his cruelty, but who is himself never seen in the town at all. This fact simply increases the townspeople’s anxiety, so that when the Vizier acquires an elephant, their resentment of the innocent creature is the more intense. The Vizier’s young elephant seems larger than he really is because he reflects the people’s fear of the Vizier himself. There are several elements of importance in the development of the story such as the obvious innocence of the animal, which causes havoc in the narrow streets of Travnik because of its size and youthful exuberance, its need of play and exercise.

The central point of the story is made in a manner typical for Andrić. The narrative focuses on one character, Aljo, who sits on a hillside above the town, and from this new perspective is able clearly to see the nature of the impasse in which he had his fellow-citizens are trapped. So, he decided to visit Vizier in order to tell him that “it was enough with the elephant”. But on the way to the Vizier’s konak “he loses so much of himself, fear consumes him to such an extent that his life is worth nothing”.  He goes back down the hill to become once more the old Aljo, who loves a good joke. In its limited way, with the scope for action at its disposal, Aljo’s spirit triumphs. He has shown more courage than his fellow-citizens in his willingness to complain to the Vizier about the elephant and, when this mission proves impossible, after his initial reaction his old zest for life returns.

The story is a particularly apt illustration of its introductory remarks. The wry humor with which it treats the surface content, the elephant and the townspeople’s inept reactions, cannot relieve the underlying account of the price of life under occupation which is vividly evokes.