Monday, May 23, 2011
Small Memories / José Saramago; translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c2011.
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.