Summer Reading: Review of Saramago’s SMALL MEMORIES

This weekend the WASHINGTON POST ran my review of José Saramago’s posthumously published memoir. For me, summer is a time to catch up on reading that I can’t quite get to during the school year, although I also have to get a lot of writing done myself over the next couple of months. I enjoy reviewing books outside my scholarly field. I have to think about them more intensively than I would as a casual reader, and yet I do not have a scholarly investment in the reception of the work. I did not know Saramago’s work before I reviewed SMALL MEMORIES, but now I can understand  why his achievements as a writer have seemed so remarkable to so many — especially in Europe. Discovering writers that matter to you is an intensely personal process, a process that began for me as an undergraduate at Wesleyan. Reviewing is one way for me to share that process.

What are the chances? That a child surrounded by illiteracy, shuffling between his family’s new life in Lisbon and their roots in the countryside, will have such an intense appetite for words that he relishes pages from discarded newspapers, seizes on fragments of Molière in a guidebook, and will one day create parallel worlds in which an entire nation goes blind, in which Jesus apologizes for God’s sins, in which death suddenly stops occurring. These worlds, fantastic as they are, turn out to be uncomfortably like our own.

What are the chances? That a writer whose early efforts were greeted with harsh criticism (or mere silence) leaves the literary world behind to concentrate on journalism, returns in his 50s to pen novels that capture the imagination of European writers and critics, is celebrated for political bravery and artistic originality and crowned with the Nobel Prize for literature.

José Saramago (1922-2010) was this child, this writer, and in “Small Memories” he has provided us with a collection of memories of his childhood and adolescence. The recollections don’t follow a linear path but instead touch lightly on lives framed by poverty and frequent brutality. But in Saramago’s retrospective imagination, these are also lives infused with dignity, affection and deep connection. The author knows the tricks that memory can play, and on some matters he has taken great pains to test his recollections against recorded facts. Saramago is fascinated by the vagaries of remembrance, at one point wondering if certain memories he had were really his.

Although his parents moved to Lisbon when he was just 18 months old (his father was to be a policeman), Jose continued to shuffle between Portugal’s capital and Azinhaga, his native village. The village was the “cradle in which my gestation was completed, the pouch into which the small marsupial withdrew to make what he alone could make, for good or possibly ill, of his silent, secret, solitary self.” The reader is introduced to various family members: a father consumed by jealous rage; grandparents who are hardened, stoic workers but who keep the weakest of their piglets warm by bringing them into their bed for a few nights. The author’s mother is long-suffering, but she is also the young woman who on passing through a doorway forgets she is carrying a jug of water on her head because she has just received a proposal from her future husband. “You might say that my life began there too,” Saramago writes, “with a broken water jug.”

After relating this incident of the broken jug, Saramago tells the reader that his older brother, Francisco, died at age 4 in the spring of 1924, some months after his mother brought them to Lisbon. The author wonders about his memory of his brother, the “happy, sturdy, perfect little boy, who, it would seem, cannot wait for his body to grow and for his arms to be long enough to reach something.” “It’s the summer or perhaps the autumn of the year Francisco is going to die,” Saramago writes, adding it’s “my earliest memory. And it may well be false.”

I was unprepared for the piercing sadness of this hazy recollection, steeped in sorrow but told in the same calm, matter-of-fact style as Saramago’s other childhood recollections. From the loss of his older brother we are led to a memory with a “fierce and violent truth”: Saramago’s brutal encounter with a pack of older boys who, holding him down, thrust a metal wire into his urethra. The horror and sadness of the wounded little boy, blood streaming from his penis, is startling in the context of the quiet charms of the volume as a whole. Francisco is dead; little José has no one to protect him. The physical wounds will heal, but the longing for the missing brother — and a concern for those who are vulnerable to all sorts of brutality — will always remain.

Shortly after relating this incident, Saramago recalls his older friend the “prodigious shoemaker,” also named Francisco, who asked the young author-to-be if he believed there were other worlds, where other possibilities were realized. When Saramago first decided to write a memoir, he tells us that he knew he would want to write of his brother. Bringing the forgotten back through words is the writer’s alchemy, his power to create when faced with the harshness of the world.

Saramago, a poet, journalist and diarist in addition to being an acclaimed novelist, knew that words mattered a great deal — that they can even point to one’s destiny. The writer’s paternal family name, for example, was de Sousa, and the author tells us it was a town clerk’s joke to register his surname as Saramago — the name for a wild radish eaten by the poor in harsh times. The boy grew into his name, taming his wildness but always remaining faithful to his roots in poverty. “Small Memories” is an expression of that fidelity, a small but nourishing last gift from a great writer.

Cross-posted from