Fuzzy memories tinged with sadness – “Miami Herald”

fjs

Who knew a child surrounded by illiteracy, shuffling between city and countryside, would have such an intense appetite for words that he relished pages from discarded newspapers, seized on fragments of Moliere in a guidebook and would 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.

Jose Saramago, who died in 2010, was this child, and his early efforts as a writer were greeted with criticism or silence. He then concentrated on journalism, returned in his 50s to pen novels that captured the imagination of European writers and critics and is now celebrated for political bravery and artistic originality — and crowned with the Nobel Prize for literature.

In this memoir, Saramago has provided us with a collection of memories. The recollections don’t follow a linear path but touch lightly on lives framed by poverty and 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. He is fascinated by the vagaries of remembrance, at one point wondering if certain memories he had were really his.

Jose grew up shuffling between Portugal’s capital and Azinhaga, his native village, 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.” Family members include a long-suffering mother; a father consumed by jealous rage; grandparents who are stoic workers but who keep their piglets warm by bringing them into their bed.

There is piercing sadness in his book, steeped in sorrow but told in the same calm, matter-of-fact style as Saramago’s other childhood recollections. From the death of his older brother we are led to a memory of Saramago’s brutal encounter with a pack of older boys who 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. The physical wounds will heal, but the longing for the missing brother — and a concern for the vulnerable — will remain.

A poet, journalist and diarist, Saramago knew that words mattered a great deal, that they can even point to one’s destiny. The writer’s paternal family name 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.

Michael S. Roth reviewed this book for The Washington Post
Fonte: Miami Herald

*

Jose Saramago’s memoir, ‘Small Memories’ –
“The Washington Post”

fjs

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 Moliere 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.

Jose 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 Jose 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.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. His “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past” will be published in the fall.
Source: The Washington Post

*

Small Memories: A Memoir by José Saramago, “The Star” of Toronto

fjs

This slim volume from Portugal’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago, written in his last days and posthumously published, has little of the charm and delivers little of the satisfaction of his fictions.

Not that it’s not an enjoyable read. On the contrary, it displays some of his gifts nicely. But whether from age or carelessness, and even though one expects something different from a memoir than a novel, it seems hurried and unpolished. Some of Saramago’s characteristic phrases, so to speak, seem more like afterthoughts or mere place markers in the text, as if he hadn’t time or mental energy to revise up to his usual standard.

Small Memories is an apt title, not just because these are ruminations on his early childhood, but also because they aren’t about much in themselves. Reading this book is very much like simply listening to an eloquent and observant old man simply relating his own story without regard for which events had any lasting impact or influence on his life.

Except, of course, that he speaks of reading. Like so many authors, Saramago was an early and avid reader, literally teaching himself to read even before entering school. Books, however, were scarce, and he had to make do with whatever came to hand. It’s through these accidental encounters with manuals, guides and (rarely) storybooks that he was introduced to literature. It’s tempting to say that this haphazard and random early learning informs his trademark sinuous and digressive style.

Saramago was born into a small village, Azinhaga, but he and his parents moved to Lisbon two years later. Small Memories move between these contrasting environments in a labyrinthine, digressive manner, illuminating his unbreakable link to his birthplace.

In Lisbon, he relates how his family was frequently on the move according to their fortunes, which were never adequate, sometimes forcing them to share apartments with other families. It’s the city that teaches him, through the actions of schoolmates and other children, how unpredictable and dangerous people can be.

Back in the village, it’s the natural world itself that shapes the people and his memories. There is constant talk of the two nearby rivers, and the indiscretions and infidelities of his neighbours seem quite at home with the almost pastoral natural setting and its flora and fauna.

Since the anecdotes roam back and forth across time, there is no sense of steady forward movement. When the end comes, it simply seems to stop.

This is a quiet, contemplative book and a genial reading experience, worth the attention of Saramago’s fans. Those looking to discover why Saramago deserved his Nobel should stick to the novels.

Michel Basilières is a Toronto novelist and reviewer.
The Star, Toronto

*

fjs

A Cautious Memoirist Who Ends With a Laugh, “New York Times”

Among Nobel laureates of recent vintage, only Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the prize in literature last year, has delivered as much pure pleasure as the Portuguese novelist José Saramago. Saramago’s best books read like hallucinatory thrillers. They’re warm to the touch; they practically palpitate in your hands.

Saramago died last spring at 87. The book in front of us today is among his final compositions, a slim memoir of his youth titled “Small Memories.” It will not take a place among his major works. In fact — sometimes you must come right out and say these things — it’s mostly a vague and distracted book, one that provides the sensation of gazing on a dim and foggy day through the wrong end of a telescope.

Leave it to Saramago, though, to exit grinning. The most endearing part of “Small Memories,” a book about his childhood in the small Portuguese village of Azinhaga and then in Lisbon, comes at the very end. That’s where he deposits a small slide show of old family photographs and mischievously annotates them.

There is, for example, a photo of the handsome author in his late teens or early 20s (he looks a bit like the suave young Anatole Broyard) with a foxy gleam in his eye. His caption reads: “By now, I had a girlfriend. You can tell by the look on my face.”

Beneath another image, Saramago describes the way his mother, like a Soviet-era propagandist, used scissors to snip people she no longer liked out of family photographs. For her, he writes, “the end of a friendship meant the end of any photos too.” These photographs — they roll like credits at the end of a film — are an impish reminder of what good company Saramago has been over time.

“Small Memories” is a distillation of some of the central recollections of Saramago’s youth, including the death at 4 of his older brother, Francisco. But more often the memories he supplies here are, as his title implies, small but echoing ones.

He recalls the way his mother was forced to pawn the family’s blankets after each winter. There are memories of fishing and of having fish stolen from him. He remembers watching silent movies.

Saramago licks very old wounds. About once being denied a chance to ride a certain horse, he conjures this: “I’m still suffering from the effects of a fall from a horse I never rode. There are no outward signs, but my soul has been limping for the last 70 years.”

It’s an appalling cliché to call any book a meditation on memory. What book, especially a memoir, is not that? But Saramago is obsessed here with the flickering quality of his own inner newsreel.

An elderly man looking back more than eight decades, he is right to mistrust and qualify his own recollections. But by frequently employing phrases like “I’m not inventing this” and — after describing a vivid sunset — “it really was, this isn’t a mere literary afterthought,” he manages to cast doubt over even the things of which he seems most certain. It is as if this great man were herding ghosts.

The details in “Small Memories,” which has been adroitly translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, are not marshaled into a flowing, force-gathering stream. But rich moments are to be had nonetheless.

Saramago reminds us that his surname at birth was de Sousa; “Saramago” was a family nickname — it means “wild radish” — given to the author on his birth certificate, perhaps by a drunken clerk. It is amusing to learn that he dated a woman whose surname was Bacalhau, which means salt cod. They would have made delicious children.

Like a wild radish, the young Saramago was peppery. A good deal of “Small Memories” is a grappling with his earliest awareness of sex. A veil of myth hangs over some of these memories: hiring a boatman to cross a river to meet a girl; ogling a fat prostitute on the way to see a movie alone.

Some of the memories are more quickening. Saramago and one of his young girlfriends were “precocious sinners,” he says. At age 11 or so, he writes, “we were caught one day together in bed, playing at what brides and bridegrooms play at, active and curious about everything on the human body that exists in order to be touched, penetrated and fiddled with.”

After being caught, he recalls, he was spanked on the bottom. There is no word on whether that, too, was a Proustian delight in its recollection.

He is alert to the “friction of saddle on crotch,” and to the thumpity-thump beating of hearts “underneath the sheet and the blanket” when necessarily sharing a bed with an older female cousin. Sex gets the juices running in Saramago’s prose.

His best writing has always had an aphoristic quality, and that’s true here. “There are plenty of people out there,” he writes, “who steal much more than copper wire and rabbits and still manage to pass themselves off as honest folk in the eyes of the world.”

He notes: “The truth is that children’s cruelty knows no limits (which is the real reason why adult cruelty knows no bounds either).” And surely he is attending to literary reality when he writes, in what is probably the sentence in this book I hold most dear: “However hard you may try, there is never much to say about a henhouse.”

“Small Memories” has an elegiac tone, one that is suggested by something the writer’s elderly grandmother said to him: “The world is so beautiful, it makes me sad to think I have to die.”

Dwight Garner

Fonte: New York Times

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This