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June 30, 2010

Christopher Nicholson: THE ELEPHANT KEEPER

Posted by Dana

In today's guest post, author Christopher Nicholson shares his love elephants.  If you loved WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (and who didn't) you'll want to read THE ELEPHANT KEEPER and get to know these incredible animals the way Christopher has.

ElephantKeeper.jpgPeople will tell you that there are two kinds of elephants: Indian and African. I’d say that the two kinds are real and imaginary. I have a long acquaintance with imaginary elephants, going way back into childhood, when a procession of little wooden elephants with ivory tusks marched along my bedroom windowsill.

Real elephants I know less well. I was taken to the zoo as a boy, but that was all I saw of the real animal until I began to travel in India and Nepal. Then, as you can see from the photo near the front of the book, I was occasionally lucky enough to ride on an elephant. There’s something about real elephants that always surprises me. The very first time I sat on an elephant, I was amazed by the knobbliness of her spine, and the wiry hairs sprouting from her hot skin. My imaginary elephants were hairless, but this elephant, a real elephant, had these short, wiry hairs over her body. Puzzling. I remember, too, being startled by the elephant’s relationship with her keeper, the mahout. Most of the time he seemed to control her by squeezing the arches of her ears with his bare feet, or by pressing the point of his umbrella into her skull. The umbrella – a black umbrella as traditionally carried by London businessmen – was comical and curious. Every so often, when he became impatient, he would lift a short, metal spike and bring it down on her skull with a loud thud. I winced.

Another time – this was in Kanha National Park in India – I was riding on an elephant
that encountered a large tiger, snoozing in a patch of sunlight. With me on the elephant’s back was a tourist who, in his excitement, dropped his camera. It was an expensive camera. It landed only a few feet from the tiger, which opened its golden eyes a little wider and looked at the camera with a lazy, curious expression. The mahout said something to the elephant and gave a light tap on her skull. Elephants and tigers are enemies, but she stepped forward, sent her trunk whisking down, picked up the camera and returned it to its owner. That, too, was surprising, and utterly marvellous.

So these real elephants come to join the imaginary ones in my head; and out of the conversations between them emerge Jenny and Timothy, the elephants of THE ELEPHANT KEEPER. They are wonderful creatures to write about. It’s partly their strange, improbable appearance – those flapping ears, the piggy eyes, the ropey little tail, that twirling, curious, muscular trunk – and partly their vast, mysterious, complex intelligence.

The fascination is also, I think, that elephants exhibit something like the same range and depth of emotions as humans: rage, greed, jealousy, hatred, impatience, curiosity, love. Some elephants have exuberant, extrovert personalities; some are shy and reflective; some become frightened, or are mentally unstable. There are ways, of course, in which elephants are unlike humans, but we share enough to raise some interesting questions about the nature of elephants, and about our own nature, as human beings. And behind these lie other questions. What would a conversation with an elephant be like? What would it be like to be an elephant?

These are questions that science tends to avoid. Too difficult. But in fiction, where the elephants are imaginary, there’s no problem.

-- Christopher Nicholson, author of THE ELEPHANT KEEPER