Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
When an eighty-year old José Saramago set out to write a memoir of his childhood, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner originally titled it “The Book of Temptations.” What he turned out to write didn’t, after all, explore the mind’s deepest desires and the contemplation of sin. Rather, it consisted of anecdotal descriptions of ordinary events from his childhood that shaped the author’s life. He decided to re-title his memoir Small Memories, a more apt title for the slim and easily readable book.
In these pages, Saramago muses on how the hills surrounding the Portuguese town in which he grew up were once covered in ancient olive trees, but later were all torn up to be replaced with fields of corn. He relates the origin of his fear of dogs, his fear of horses, and the first time he gave his word of honor—to swear to his insanely jealous uncle that no other man had visited his aunt, thereby saving the woman’s life.
Saramago’s reminiscences take us back to a simpler time when poor children had no toys, and had to make do playing finger soccer with a wooden board covered in nails. He describes how he lost interest in religion as a boy, and how his actual last name is not Saramago— he was born José de Sousa, but a mistake on his birth certificate was written José de Sousa Saramago, and so his father changed the whole family’s surname to match. In more piqued passages, Saramago relates his first sexual experiences, and how he once walked in on his aunt lying on the floor, legs spread and skirt up, masturbating.
“We often forget what we would like to remember,” Saramago writes, “and yet certain images, words, flashes, illuminations repeatedly, obsessively return to us from the past at the slightest stimulus, and there’s no explanation for that; we don’t summon them up, they are simply there.” This quote certainly explains the lack of structure of the memoir, which counter-intuitively makes the book more cohesive—an unorganized piecemeal of childhood memories is how one looks back on one’s life, rather than in a sequential order of significant dates and events.
Some of the best passages are when Saramago describes how he learned to read in a mostly illiterate household—not to mention a mostly illiterate culture—and how all the memories described in the memoir were seeds that the older writer eventually reaped in his novels. Throughout the memoir, Saramago notes how he used real characters from his life as fictional characters in his first novel, The Manual of Painting & Calligraphy, or in his first popular novel, Baltasar and Blimunda.
It is this literary aspect of Small Memories that makes the memoir a necessary read for Saramago fans, as the author bravely reveals his personal life with even more honesty than he does in his fiction.