I’ve only read two books by José Saramago (Blindness and The Double), but I was over the moon about them both. They’re both dark and strange, and the narrative voice is unconventional and distinctive. (The two books I read were translated by different people, but the voice retained its idiosyncratic style.) When I saw Small Memories, Saramago’s memoir of his childhood on Netgalley, I had to give it a try, but I wondered whether his quirky voice would translate well to a form more firmly grounded in reality than the dark fantasies of his other books.
At first glance, Small Memories looks like a run-of-the-mill childhood memoir. Saramago recalls various incidents from his childhood in Portugal in the 1920s and 30s. He writes of his parents, his neighbors, his friends, his schooling—the usual stuff. There’s very little about Portuguese politics; Saramago focuses on the things he would have observed as a boy, and he’s more likely to notice small domestic and school-based dramas than larger historical movements.
There’s nothing especially notable about Saramago’s childhood. His family was poor and moved around a lot, he excelled in his early years of school, he got bullied, he went fishing and played with his cousins, he was curious about girls. But in the hands of a gifted writer, even the ordinary seems extraordinary. In prose elegantly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Saramago lovingly depicts the small details that drew his interest as a child, details that he stored away for later use in a writing career he never expected to have:
The child, while he was a child, was simply in the landscape, formed part of it and never questioned it, never said or thought, in these or other words, “What a beautiful landscape, what a magnificent panorama, what a fabulous view!” Naturally, when he climbed the stairs to the church belfry or scrambled to the top of a sixty-foot ash tree, his young eyes were capable of appreciating and noticing the wide open spaces before him, but it must be said that he was always more drawn to singling out and focusing on things and beings that were close, on what he could touch with his hands, on what offered itself to him as something which, without him being aware of it, demanded to be understood and absorbed into his spirit (the latter being a jewel which, needless to say, the child had no idea he carried within him): a snake slithering away, an ant carrying on high a crumb of wheat, a pig eating from the trough, a toad lolloping along on bent legs, or a stone, a spider’s web, the soil turned up by the blade of the plough, an abandoned bird’s nest, the drop of resin running like a tear down the trunk of a peach tree, the frost glittering on the undergrowth. Or the river.
Saramago’s characteristic stream-of-consciousness style makes the memoir feel like a story told directly to you by a grandfather or old uncle looking back upon his life. It’s only vaguely chronological; Saramago frequently goes off on tangents or returns to incidents that he’s already described. It sounds like it might be confusing, and I suppose it is if you’re looking for autobiography. This isn’t autobiography—it’s more of a meditation on memory itself.
Memoirs are by their very nature reliant on memory. Even memoirists who make a deliberate effort to go out and confirm every memory they recount will be limited by the memory of others they consult or the records that were kept. Saramago is keenly aware of this:
Sometimes I wonder if certain memories are really mine or if they’re just someone else’s memories of episodes in which I was merely an unwitting actor and which I found out about later when they were told to me by others who had been there, unless, of course, they, too, had only heard the story from someone else.
This uncertainty becomes a running theme throughout the book, as Saramago notes certain memories that are possibly false or describes the same incident twice but with a different emphasis each time. Sometimes he even remembers the facts differently on a second telling, which throws a new light on a story and leaves readers to wonder which version is true. He comments on how people might adapt their histories or have new histories foisted upon them. His birth certificate, for example, shows an incorrect birth date because his father was away at the time of his birth and could not register his birth with the government by the deadline, so he gave a false birth date. And thus, the official history is not necessarily any more reliable than our memories.
I find the whole question of memory fascinating, so I was intrigued with how Saramago weaved this uncertainty into the book. It makes this small book of Small Memories into a vehicle for big questions, which is something I’ve come to expect from Saramago.