I gaze down from the bank at the barely moving current, the almost stagnant water and, absurdly, I imagine that everything would go back to being as it was if only I could once again plunge my childhood nakedness into the river, if I could grasp in today’s hands the long, damp pole or the sonorous oars of yesterday, and propel across the water’s smooth skin the rustic boat that used to carry, to the very frontiers of dreams, the being I was then and whom I left stranded somewhere in time.
This is a passage from early on in Small Memories, the new—and, since it’s taken five years to be translated into English, posthumous—memoir from the late Portuguese writer José Saramago.
Read the quote again. Drink it in. Ponder it. Let it wash over you.
Oh, it’s so awful.
Right? We can admit this. Cloying, navel-gazing, and completely obvious. If Saramago didn’t have a Nobel Prize to his name, there’s no way a passage like that would have escaped the red pen of a judicious editor.
But he does have that Nobel Prize. And, more importantly, there’s the body of work that won Saramago that prize: a shimmering, beguiling, and stylistically stunning list of novels, spanning seven decades, which acrobatically dismantle the usual notions of myth-making and storytelling. Saramago wrote with heart, too, not to mention absolute moral conviction.
So maybe it doesn’t matter that Small Memories is so inessential, such a trifling piece of work, from a writer capable of moving mountains. Maybe, by this point, he’s earned a little self-indulgence. You do get the sense that Saramago is answering to nobody but himself here—conjuring up whatever fragments of memory he can from time spent as a youth in the tiny Portuguese village of Azinhaga before they’re lost forever.
And some of the recollections are sweet and compelling, too. Saramago accidentally acquired his legal last name, which is Portuguese for “wild radish,” when a drunk clerk at the registry office got a little too creative with the birth registry. (Nobody discovered the gaffe until Saramago registered for elementary school. He was seven.)
There are also occasionally vivid details of a life lived deep in the country. Saramago’s grandmother used to clean her kitchen floor by applying a fresh coat of mud, then scraping it flat and letting it dry. During the winter, his grandparents would take the weakest piglets from the litter and let them sleep next to them in their bed. Azinhaga even had a local boatman, who would lackadaisically ferry people across the Tejo River, for crying out loud.
But mostly the memoir is scattershot and overly detached, like watching slides of someone else’s vacation. Worse, Saramago’s memory doesn’t seem to be quite up to the task he’s set himself. Sample quotes: “assuming I’m not just making it up”; “I think it was the following summer”; “if my memory can be trusted”; “I can’t be absolutely sure that things happened in exactly this sequence.” If he was this unsure of himself, is it too much to suggest that perhaps this material should have been recycled, and slipped into one of his novels instead?
Another paragraph begins this way: “I have little else to say about our time in Rua Heróis de Quionga, just a few random memories of little importance.” But then Saramago goes on to name them. All of them. The last one—true story—is “I’ve always loved bread.”
Memories don’t come much smaller than that.
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 176 pp, $26.95, hardcover
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, August 4, 2011)May 12, 2011