“A letter to Josefa, my grandmother”

You are ninety years old. Old and in pain. In your youth, you tell me, you were the most beautiful girl in the village – and I can believe that. You never learned to read. Your fingers are thick and gnarled and your feet have the texture of cork. On your head you carried tons of firewood and stubble stolen from the fields as fodder, and whole lakes of water. You saw the sun rise every day. The bread you kneaded over the years would be enough to furnish a universal banquet. You raised both people and animals, you even used to take the piglets to bed with you so that they wouldn’t freeze to death. You told me stories about ghosts and werewolves, old family disputes, a murder. You were the mainstay of the household, the fire in the hearth – seven times you fell pregnant and seven times you gave birth.
You know nothing of the world. You understand nothing of politics, economics, literature, philosophy or religion. You inherited hundreds of practical words, an elementary vocabulary. And that was quite enough for you to live by and to go on living. You are as fascinated by major disasters and royal weddings, as you are by petty local scandals and the theft of your neighbour’s rabbits. You harbour grudges against people, for reasons you can no longer recall, and for certain others profess an equally baseless devotion. You live. The word “Vietnam” is merely a barbarous sound of no importance to your league-and-a-half of world. You know about hunger: you’ve seen a black plague flag raised on the church tower. (Did you tell me that, or did I just dream it?) You carried with you your small cocoon of interests. And yet your eyes are still bright and you’re still happy. Your laughter is like a firework exploding. I’ve never heard anyone laugh the way you do.
I’m sitting here before you and I don’t understand. I’m your own flesh and blood and I don’t understand. You came into the world, but made no effort to understand it. Now you’re nearing the end of your life and, for you, the world is still what it was when you were born: a question mark, an unfathomable mystery, something that forms no part of your inheritance, which consists of a few hundred words, a piece of land you could walk round in five minutes, a house with an unboarded roof and a mud floor. I squeeze your calloused hand, stroke your lined face and your white hair, grown thin from the weight of all those burdens carried on your head – and still I don’t understand. You were beautiful, you say, and I can see that you’re intelligent. Who stole the world from you? And why? But perhaps I could understand and explain the how, why and when of it were you able to choose from my innumerable words the words you could comprehend. There’s no point now. The world will continue without you – and without me. And we won’t have told each other what really matters.
Or will we? I will have failed to give you the world you deserved because my words are not yours. Worse, I’m left feeling guilty about something you never accused me of. But Grandma, how can you sit outside your front door, looking up at the vast, starry sky, the sky of which you know nothing and across which you will never travel, at the silent fields and the dark trees, and say, with the serenity and tranquillity of your ninety years and with the fire of your still burning youth: «The world is so beautiful, it makes me sad to think I have to die!»
That is what I can’t understand – but that’s my fault not yours.

José Saramago

Trad.: Margaret Jull Costa

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