Book review: Elefant by Martin Suter

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)


Using a glowing pink miniature elephant as the vehicle through which to address the moral and ethical complexities of genetic research may not at first seem to be the most obvious idea in the storytelling book.

But Elefant, a tale of one such quite unnatural, lovable oddity, the people who come to love him and those who only see dollar signs and the chance for self-aggrandisement, makes this quirkily oddball conceit and work well.

Key of course is the fact that the elephant in question, all of 30 cm high and name Barisha or Sabu or both depending on when you come to know him, is so damn sweet and yet undeniably animalistically elephantine – Suter is at pains to stress that for all its artificial origins, he is still a product of nature at his core – that everyone from a circus trainer named Kaung to a homeless man named Schoch and a vet named Valerie all go out their way to protect him.

And a lot of protecting needs to be done with one Mr Roux, founder of Genesca, and his Chinese partners, determined that they will have Barisha/Sabu in their possession or die trying.

“Schoch had admitted to himself long ago that he was an alcoholic. But he was a disciplined alcoholic, he kept telling himself. He had his alcoholism under control. He could stop whenever he wanted, as he proved several times already. Stopped and, because he’d managed it, started again. He’d stop for good when there was a compelling reason to do so.
Was a pink elephant a compelling reason?” (P. 39)

It’s a typical titanic battle of public good vs. corporate evil with some cartoonish flourishes that somehow manage to co-exist happily alongside the book’s more serious elements.

Part of that success comes down to the fact that Suter takes the time to establish his characters, spending quite a few chapters letting us get to know Schoch, Kaung, and his boss Pellegrini, Schoch and Valerie and a host of greater and lesser characters all of whom have a part to play in this gently-told but compelling little story.

For the most part, save for a final act climax which less blockbustery and overwrought that a slight escalation in pace, Suter eschews over the top melodrama narrative amping up in favour of letting the story amble amiably along.

Because we know these people so well, even the bad guys like Roux and Tseng, who are less evil as corporately intent, we’re happy to go along with a moseying style of storytelling, especially because the reasons people would give up everything for a glow-in-the-dark pink elephant has less to do with high-and-mighty principles, though they definitely have them, and more to do with issues in their own lives.

It’s this innate, beautifully-told humanity that anchors this somewhat fantastical story that merges genetic research and cutting-edge 21st century science with the basic need we all have to be known, loved and belong.



That is, of course, what every great piece of storytelling should have – an emphasis on characters over plot, the appealingly grounded and human over the emptily fantastical.

Suter is well aware of this from the start, gifting us with characters who aren’t good or evil necessarily, though some are possessed of more dubious motivations than others, but whose actions certainly indicate their worth or otherwise in our affections.

By personalising what can feel like an impenetrably complex issue, largely because it is, the author has given us a way into the vexed conundrum that is genetic research.

Like so many other pressing technological issues, there is both good and bad to be gained by advances in genetic knowhow.

Alas where there is the end of cancer or other chronic and terminal diseases, there is rampant abuse such as creating new life, or really twisting the old exisiting one, which in the case of Elefant comes down to ushering pink elephants into existence for the amusement of the indolent rich and materialistically-inclined.

Suddenly life is not so much a miracle and a wonder, though you’d be hard-pressed not to view Barisha/Sabu in those terms, as another monetised, tradeable commodity, part of modern society’s seemingly endless quest to hang a dollar sign on everything.

“After dinner they’d made tea and repaired to the drawing room. Sabu had stayed in the kitchen, but they’d left the doors open in case she wanted to join them. Some days she was more attached to them than others.” (P. 286)

By taking us down to such a micro, very human level, genetic research feels like something we can grappled with, at least in part.

I say, “in part” because this is no scientifically-dense treatise on the issue; rather at a look at how a somewhat removed concept for many people can play out in the day-to-day world we all inhabit.

Elefant is isn’t a perfect novel and it can sometimes feel like narrative heft and momentum is lost to one too many characters or side diversions, or musings on some quirk or oddity; but largely Suter’s deceptively-simple tale works because it personalises technology and makes relatable, real and something that might impact us.

Granted, it’s highly unlikely we will ever come across a glowing pink miniature elephant, and it’s unlikely we’ll face have to duck and weave about from those from those who want it for their own nefarious ends, but you read this heartwarming, gently-told and delightfully human novel, you come to understand how our world is changing and how even in the midst of all that chaotic transition, that it’s important to hold onto what makes us human lest everything simply becomes a part of an amoral bottom line, and we lose who we are in the process.

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