‘From drunken masturbating old ladies to philosophical shoemakers’ – Small Memories by Jose Saramago

A new José Saramago book is enough to send me skipping around the house in glee. I first encountered his work six years ago, when a friend handed me her tattered copy of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ to keep me entertained on a bus journey; I didn’t look up from the pages for hours. Saramago’s idiosyncratic style – his long, clause-ridden sentences, his parenthetical asides, his wit, and the way he pounces on the relationships and nitty-gritty details that keep society ticking along – it’s exhilarating to read.

Small Memories is a memoir of his childhood in Portugal; it meanders back and forth between his family’s various homes in Lisbon, as they moved from one run-down neighbourhood to another, often sharing accommodation with another family, and Azinhaga, the tiny village in which the author was born in 1922, and to which he frequently returned to visit his extended family. Like his sentences, the structure of the book is rarely straightforward; it leaps about in time as well as place, and though it does move more or less from his birth to the end of his secondary school education, it’s certainly not a linear, analytic setting-forth of events – not that any reader of Saramago would expect such a narrative. Rather, this is an impressionistic set of memories; a piling-up of characters and events and anecdotes that are revisited and reinterpreted as the book s goes on; a wry nod to the vagaries and unreliability of memory and narration. In Saramago’s mind, nothing is fixed or certain – his statements or reminiscences are often followed up with a casual ‘if I remember rightly, and always assuming I’m not just making it up.’ There’s shades of Virginia Woolf’s theories of autobiography here – the subject recalling their life not in chronological order, but focusing on particular resonant ‘moments of being’ – like Saramago’s discovery of a Roman Road, his early sexual encounters with female cousins, or his uncle’s failure to teach him to ride a horse. The book swoops from one memory to the next, and later revisits and rewrites the first, altering a date or a place or a character, changing his own age from eleven to six or eight, reminding us that memory is uncertain and can never be trusted. He tells us about his older brother, Francisco, who died in infancy, and how he himself remembers, as a child of eighteen months, watching his brother reach for a something on top of a chest of drawers, and says, ‘That, then, is my earliest memory. And it may well be false.’ Rather than undermining his narrative, though, this doubling or tripling of events, the unraveling of certainty, serves to endear the author to us, because it creates a tone of honesty – the reader feels as though Saramago is offering her privileged access to his unedited thoughts. It’s affectionate meta-autobiography.

Saramago tells us about his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbours in all their uncensored glory – from drunken masturbating old ladies to philosophical shoemakers, this is no glossed-over rose-tinted tale of the idyllic days of yore; Saramago punctures every nostalgic bubble with his usual dry humour. The book opens with a picturesque description of the groves of olive trees that once filled the landscape around Azinhaga, and tells us how those same ancient trees have now been replaced by monotonous fields of maize, a cash crop – and then adds, lest we think him a sentimental old pastoralist, ‘I’m not bemoaning the loss of something that didn’t even belong to me, I’m simply trying to explain that this present-day landscape isn’t mine.’ Despite the growing political upheaval in Europe during the period covered by these memoirs – with the Spanish Civil War casting a huge shadow over his childhood and adolescence – politics is only referred to in passing, such as when he tell us how media propaganda means that his maps of the troops’ advancements and battles turned out to be useless, and he had to throw them away. He tells us how certain events ended up in later writings – his search to find out more about his brother’s death led to ‘All the Names’, for instance – but this isn’t a story about the formation of a writer; the memories he relates have found their way into his fictions, but he doesn’t present them as material, or as polished mirrors in which we can see the reflection of a mature writer – instead these are unselfconscious, funny, and truthful accounts of an old man’s childhood, apparently untroubled by scrupulous attention to historical research. Whether or not a particular event happened in the way he recalls it, he says, isn’t the point; it’s the memory itself that lingers and feeds into who you become, and thus it’s relevant to include it.

The books ends with a series of photographs, and this was my favourite section: Saramago lays out seventeen images of himself and his family, and instead of captioning them with the date and place and scrupulously identifying the subjects, he labels them as though he’s leaning over your shoulder, describing them to you. ‘They’ve put a tie on me in this one’, he says, and, later, ‘by now I had a girlfriend. You can tell by the look on my face.’

Any Cop?: If you’re looking out for a date-stamped blow-by-blow account of the Nobel prize-winner’s life, this isn’t the book for you; but if you like the sound of an affectionate and funny, meandering tapestry of a memoir, then this will be money well-spent.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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