The brightly painted elephants that can be found round central London at the moment are probably more reminiscent of circus animals than the organisers behind the lovely Elephant Parade might like to admit. The decorations invoke the big top, where Nellie packed her trunk, or perhaps the almost Klimt-like illustrations of Elmer. Nowadays, children may be more likely to think of Jim Carrey's colourful Horton than the noble Babar.
Other transfers from the page to the big screen include pompous Colonel Hathi and his family in The Jungle Book, while Disney, of course, also created Dumbo. Elephants' long memories are legendary, the mighty waddle made comic, the size of the ears continent specific and the trunks frankly unlikely. And then there's their sheer bulk, unfortunately not replicated by the current London line-up, though no one who saw it will forget the Sultan's magnificent pachyderm that sprayed spectators in town four years ago.
Elephants' weight and size are central to two short stories that form the title pieces to a couple of collections by two writers from different times and countries. Polish satirist Slawomir Mrozek's 1957 book, recently republished by Penguin (below), features a drunken swan, an anarchic ladybird and a 'tamed progressive' kept as a pet. At its centre is a rubber elephant, installed in a zoo to save money on the real thing; filled overnight with gas, it has a quite unintended effect on the schoolchildren who witness its escape.
Haruki Murakami's book The Elephant Vanishes (1993) also includes a veritable menagerie: the wind-up bird that made the Japanese author's name and some implausible kangaroos, as well as the beast that fascinates our narrator in the final tale. The shackled zoo elephant's absence is first noticed on the same date as this post, May 18, and the details are expounded in a newspaper piece; 'What gave the article its air of strangeness was the obvious confusion and bewilderment of the reporter. And this confusion and bewilderment clearly came from the absurdity of the situation itself… For example, the article used such expressions as "the elephant escaped," but if you looked at the entire piece it became obvious that the elephant had in no way "escaped." It had vanished into thin air.'