Monday, April 18, 2011

"Small Memories," by Jose Saramago

The aptly titled "Small Memories" deals in the earliest recollections of writer Jose Saramago which are, themselves, diminutive in scale.

These memories are "small" because they recall a child, because of their size, and for what they ultimately convey.

The remembrances recorded here do not constitute a breathless page-turner, rather represent a look at the early formation of a future notable.

Childhood is childhood is childhood and only a handful of times does the Noble Prize winner connect the sapling person to the one he would become in full bloom.

That said, pretty soon they won't make memoirs like this anymore. It has been a curious paradox of modernity that so much time would pass before it truly affected all people in all places more or less equally.

While machines hummed and factories rattled, great expanses of the world, even in Old Europe, lagged behind. And literature has reflected this slowly evolving reality.

Writers from such laggard places as Portugal, Saramago's country, have regaled the modern among us with fairy tales rooted in their still-traditional cultures.

These stories offered an alluring literary time-travel, an escape on the time continuum, a chance to go backwards in history and contrast old ways with those foisted upon us by the relentless drive of industrialization to make everyone over in the same image.

Saramago was born in 1922 and died in 2010. He was long-lived and sprung from the rural and pastoral setting of Azingha, complete with farm animals, harvests, and tiny villages featuring operatic occurrences seemingly foreign to the big city or suburb.

And that is where much of "Small Memories" takes place, although he alternated between the capital city of Lisbon and the country home of his grandparents.

Perhaps the most attractive section of this slim tome is the final stanza, penned as a love-letter to the family elders whom offered him that door to Azingha where, he says, "I would one day return to finish being born."

It is probably true that the publishing of this memoir would never have occurred minus Saramago's fame as the author of "Blindness" and other literary tours de force; that, on its own, it is simply not striking enough.

But there are passages where the writer of world-renown surfaces to illuminate a distant time, assembling its simple elements into beautiful literature. We'll close with this remembrance of the young boy and his uncle driving pigs to market, by way of example:

"I sat up in the trough, blinking and still sleepy, dazzled by an unexpected light. I jumped down and went out into the yard: before me, pouring a milky light over the night and the surrounding landscape, was a vast round moon, making the white seem still whiter where the light struck it full on the black shadows still deeper. I would never see a moon like that again. We fetched the pigs and set off very cautiously down into the valley, where the grass was very tall and there were thick shrubs and rocks, and the piglets, not used to being out so early, could easily stray and get lost. Once in the valley, it was easier. We walked along a dusty path, the dust slaked by the cool of night, past vineyards in which the grapes were already ripe, and I leapt in among the vines and cut two large bunches that I slipped inside my shirt, looking around all the while in case a keeper should appear. I returned to the path and handed one to my uncle. We walked on, eating the cold, sweet grapes, so hard they seemed almost crystallized."

Without "Small Memories," this limpid world might have passed without comment. Instead, it is there for those curious enough to visit.

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