Monday, May 23, 2011

Small Memories

Small Memories / José Saramago; translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c2011.
157 p.

This is a brief, posthumous autobiographical work by one of my favourite authors, José Saramago. (Posthumous in English, anyhow: it was first published in Portuguese in 2006). It details his youth in Portugal, noting especially his family connections and his experience of the natural world. But, as Teresa said in her own review at her blog Shelf Love, this book is really about memory itself.

Saramago tells us stories that he assumes we've probably already heard (like the one about how he got his last name); he returns to things he's told us in the first few pages and corrects himself later in the book; he talks about the way in which his memories don't always match up with others'; he points out that sometimes we can't remember things that seem important but a moment looking at the moon forty years ago will come back us as clear as if it had just happened.

As usual with his work, it is meandering, gently humourous, yet with that ineffable grasp of human motivation and desire. It's an unusual memoir, in that it isn't a straightforward story of a life, but it is very, very Saramago. It is less a chronological report of a life than an illumination of childhood hurts, pleasures, images, or simply of moments that still recur in his memories -- which may seem apparent from the title of the book! It is told from the viewpoint of the child he was, with no later understandings or interpretations put on to his experiences -- for example, there are no adult asides explaining the political situation or the family structure in full. It is a lovely read, with much to enjoy and think about. There is also a series of family photos at the end of the book, showing him at various stages of his youth with, of course, amusing captions. His parents' photos are revealing as well, showing the family lineage in his own face.

I enjoyed this very much; I'm already a big Saramago fan, and reading this felt like sitting listening to him talk -- correcting himself, hauling out the family albums, having a good laugh at himself and the unreliability of memory. It gave me a pang reading this knowing that he is no longer with us, but this book is a wonderful legacy that complements his fiction perfectly.


  1. I'm really not a memoir gal, but I've been trying to find a new Saramago to read and I hadn't even known this had come out (I'm really good at this checking up on books and when they're published thing).

    Sounds beautiful.

  2. I'm glad that you enjoyed this, too. I agree it's that unconventional as a memoir but very Saramago. He was such a wonderful writer.

  3. Love the clarity of your reviews. This one's going on my list!

  4. likeglass - it is so sad when a favourite author will have no more new books for us to await...this is a charming book, I think you might enjoy it as a Saramago fan already (and I only keep up on the publishing round as I see all the forthcoming catalogues via my library job)

    Teresa - I agree. This kind of memoir is actually quite wonderful, to me -- I love, love, love this kind of look back at childhood by mature writers.

    Carin - glad I could be your literary enabler! hope you will enjoy :)

  5. I've read a couple of his books - Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and Death at Intervals. Neither was particularly conventional, so I'm not surprised to hear that his memoirs follow a similar pattern. I am also fascinated by memory, and love the idea of reading a memoir that deals honestly with the lapses and inconsistencies. Often it seems as if the writers of autobiography either have perfect memories or keep perfect records of every aspect of their lives from early childhood onwards, neither of which are particularly endearing traits. This slightly meandering, unrealiable approach sounds like something I would enjoy more!

  6. Andrew - thanks for your comments! I also wonder when reading memoirs how the author seems to be so clear on the things that happened to them forty or fifty years ago...I like that Saramago acknowledges this issue and makes it into a charming part of the entire narrative. But then I do love his circuitous style in all of his novels as well so perhaps I was already inclined to enjoy this one :)

  7. How I do love Saramago and miss him very much. This sounds wonderful and so typical. I must get my hands on a copy!

  8. Stefanie - it is wonderful, and typical. Very enjoyable for fans.

  9. What a superb, salivation-causing review! I cannot wait to read the book.
    I met [was in the presence of and spoke a few uninterpreted words of adoration to] Jose Saramago, and consider it one of sacred moments of my life.
    I've read all his books and cannot wait to get at this one.

  10. Cipriano - I will forever be envious of you just for that! I know you will love this one.


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