Review: Small Memories, José Saramago

José Saramago, Small Memories, (transl. Margaret Jull Costa), Harvill Secker.

(Review originally published at Die Burger’s Boekeblok)

This is a beautiful book. Saramago, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, writes his memoir about growing up in rural Azinhaga and Lisbon. It is a book about boyhood which anyone with a small-town childhood, and with a pre-digital childhood, will enjoy. It is a celebration of his peasant background, and a gentle mourning about its loss to the world through big business agriculture.

But such beautifully written books are always difficult to review. One often simply wants to quote the whole book and exhort: see how beautiful this is! So allow me to quote at length from the opening pages, where Saramago, growing up in Lisbon but spending holidays with his grandparents in Azinhaga, where he was born, considers his village roots:

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, of that clay, now dry, now wet, composed of vegetable and animal remains, of detritus left behind by everything and everyone, crushed and pulverised rocks, multiple, kaleidoscopic substances that passed through life and to life returned, just like the suns and the moons, times of flood and drought, cold weather and hot, wind and no wind, sorrows and joys, the living and the not. Only I knew, without knowing I did, that on the illegible pages of destiny and in the blind meanderings of chance it had been written that I would one day return to Azinhaga to finish being born.

It is beautiful, even if we have access to it only via English translation. The rhythm of that first sentence, keeping it going, not losing wind. And the light touch that mixes the worldly and the cosmic. And the imperceptible shift from third-person to first-person. It is, after all, the adult author looking back at a distant character, but at the same time it is the self remembering the self.

Unlike JM Coetzee in Boyhood, for instance, told entirely in third-person, Saramago is still invested in his child self and its world (returning to finish being born). So it acknowledges both the distance and the proximity. The book is never sentimental, but it is filled with romance and nostalgia, with regrets expressed with Latinate deftness. From stories about his romantic misadventures to the curious origins of his love of horses, the rural scenes especially are filled with a sense of its ruralness, and it is as if a bittersweet film about childhood is playing to the reader’s eyes.

I strongly recommend this book. You will not be disappointed.

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