It’s odd that one of José Saramago’s last books should be an autobiography. Saramago was the great postmodernist who championed an impersonal style of novelization that allowed his characters to speak for all of humanity; characters which rarely had names, but instead titles, like The Cellist and The Doctor’s Wife. Or, when his characters did have names (or were historical figures, like Jesus Christ) they were often not even real, like the title character of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, who is a living person but also the ghost of a dead poet.
Small Memories, published just before his death in 2010, is at first consideration a very un-Saramago-like book. He is the protagonist, and the book is written in the first person. It takes place not in some nameless European country, like Blindness is, but in the rural villages of his home, places with names like Azinhaga, Mouchão dos Coelhos and Mafra. When he addresses the reader, which he also does sometimes in works like his comedic novella Death with Interruptions, it comes from the author himself, by this point a frail old man, rather than a god-like narrator.
Yet, Saramago knows that the subject matter is awkward, and embraces the awkwardness. He is a very skilled and very deliberate writer. So although the topic is strange to Saramago loyalists, he is confident and familiar in his style, which in Small Memories doesn’t stray much from his typical writing techniques (long sentences, punctuationless dialog, lots of parentheticals, and so on). In the book, the author is both intimate and distant. When he addresses the reader he does so informally, as if talking to a friend or maybe telling a story to his daughter, who is by now an adult and has her own children.
However, he simultaneously distances himself from the story (the story of himself). This is Saramago’s signature style, and he manages to make young José a character and not a memory. In many instances, he slips into the third person, removing his connection to the tale by one degree.
“The child I was did not see the landscape as the adult he became would be tempted to see it from the lofty height of manhood. 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!’”
Saramago has post-modernized his own history. The man whose life was dedicated to books has finally become one. After the passage above, he “reads” a poem he wrote as a teenager, then describes its meaning in the first person plural, and then immediately changes both tense and mode, talking about place he is revisiting only in his mind. The literary engineering mends past and present, making the unreal real and vise-versa. He writes:
“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… and propel across the water’s smooth skin the rustic boat that used to carry, to the very frontier of dreams, the being I was then and whom I left stranded somewhere in time.”
As part of a Nobel Prize-winning canon, Small Memories serves primarily to show the writer’s skill. His more severe books display the themes that won him the prize, and this book displays his craft. Descriptions of villages and boys at play have never been so beautiful, and it’s wonderful to know that the elderly novelist was allowed, for once in his career, to write something so light, something that probably didn’t require the voluminous research, outlining, plotting and study that his prior books entailed.
This is about his recollections, and exactly nothing more, the way he sees them. Sometimes he can’t remember exact dates or places, but it doesn’t bother him. He thinks aloud on the page, then moves on.
The book has no chapters and few paragraphs; rather, it’s divided into vignettes that are blocks of text, each separated from the ones before and after. Each section is more or less a memory—either of a time or place or scene. Rarely does one section connect to the next. Sometimes they bounce back and forth, one starting at Rue Padre Sena Freitas, the next few vignettes occur elsewhere, then the following back at Padre Sena Freitas. There, he references the section of text three blocks ago without explanation.
Saramago is also obsessed with time and chronology in this work. He argues with himself inside the book to try to piece together when events happened in relation to other memories of his life.
The point of Small Memories is to record the way in which memory works. While the reader gets glimpses into a life story, into why “the child” became a great novelist, the reader also gets a lesson in cognitive psychology.
Memories jump here and there. Much like a friend retelling a recent adventure, one thought immediately triggers another, spurring a long running tangent that usually makes its way back to the original story, but not always. It’s also interesting to see what he can recall and what he cannot. There are characters “whose name I can’t quiet remember,” but then there are “real… picture perfect” memories. Weighty, significant episodes—the ones which do the most to actually show why Saramago is who is he is (which is the point of biography, isn’t it?)—get as much attention as frivolous scenes, often within the same block of text.
His theme is summarized in the opening sentence of the fourth section:
“One cherry brings another cherry, just as a horse brought an uncle, and uncle will bring with him a rural version of the final scene of Verdi’s Othello.”
There are many oddities in the book that aren’t easy to explain. The character José Saramago, especially as a young boy, is extremely sexualized. Unlike other biographies, he separates all the accompanying photos from the work, placing them at the back after the book is finished, as a bonus for anyone clever enough to turn the last page over once they are done reading. In one section, he lists the corresponding years for every level of grammar school he attended. It ‘s pointless. Independent sections start off with phrases like “equally real” which refer to nothing and are clearly Saramago’s thoughts left unexplained.
Sadly, as beautiful as this book is, it lacks depth. Both plot and theme get lost in the hedge maze of memories, which guides us one way only to leave us at a dead end and force us to turn back to try another route. Small Memories’ episodes and stories—especially those of witnessing love between two people, occasionally for young José and occasionally between the many curious adults in the book—are often gorgeous, as good as anything written by Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller. Saramago’s books are always grounded in theme, though, and Small Memories is not weighted down by the morally heavy centers that even his funniest novels carry, and so it floats away.