Small Memories—A Memoir: José Saramago

Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Published by Harvill Secker, 2009, 200 pages. Original version published in 2006.

José Saramago was born in 1922 in Azinhaga, a village in Portugal. The village has a charter that dates back to the thirteenth century, “but nothing remains of that glorious ancient history except the river that passes right by it”. The name comes from the Arabic “as-zinaik” meaning “narrow street”. His maternal grandparents lived there, and although he moved with his parents to Lisbon as a child, he kept returning to Azinhaga, where he felt his roots lay.

“The child, unnoticed, had already put out tendrils and sent down roots, and there had been time for that fragile child-seed to place his tiny, unsteady feet on the muddy ground and to receive from it the indelible mark of the earth, that shifting backdrop to the vast ocean of air. … Throughout my childhood and my early adolescence, that poor, rustic village, with its murmuring frontier of green trees and water, with its low houses surrounded by the silver-grey of olive trees, sometimes scorched by the burning summer sun, sometimes gripped by murderous winter frosts or drowned by the floodwaters that came in through the front door, was the cradle in which my gestation was completed.”

Saramago recounts his childhood, both in the village and in Lisbon: fighting with his cousin over a girl, his grandparents bringing home the weakest piglets in a litter and keeping the piglets warm in their bed; a balloon that Saramago’s mother buys him that deflates without him knowing, until he is left dragging a piece of rubber on a string.

His uncle Francisco owned horses but never let Saramago ride. One recollection leads to another. “One cherry brings up another cherry, and just as a horse brought an uncle, an uncle will bring with him a rural version of the final scene of Verdi’s Otello.” Francisco came home one night in a fit of jealousy and wanted to know which man had slept with his wife. Saramago and his cousin were terrified, but eventually he was made to calm down and see sense.

This is a gentle book about memories, and Saramago worries about whether he has remembered something correctly or whether it was in his imagination. You can tell he is an old man recounting his past—there is something in the tone of the writing, captured here in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation. It feels like sitting down with a favourite uncle (or great-uncle) and listening to his stories about the days when he was a child. In this case, the person telling the stories is a Nobel Laureate and writes beautifully.

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