Jose Saramago's memoir, Small Memories, is a simple book. Ostensibly it aims to do nothing more than tell anecdotes. Saramago, who recently passed away, was, along with Antonio Lobo Antunes, Portugal's most famous and respected author of his generation. He was notorious for his politics, his public disputes, his outspoken contempt for the Catholic Church. So it is surprising and wonderful to read a tiny collection of memories of life as a country boy — memories of a time before Saramago was in the public eye, before Stockholm had honoured him with the Nobel Prize, even before Saramago cared very much about writing. Small Memories is a book mostly void of political, religious or moral concerns: Saramago tells stories and describes the countryside, sorts through his experiences as a gifted but naughty child to bring us only what he thinks proved to be important in his development. The result is a delightfully innocent book.
The structure Saramago chooses for his narrative permits him to go back on himself and correct details he'd previously asserted to be true. This is a tricky thing to do. Often, playing with the chronology and factuality of a story can come across as smart but unfelt. If Saramago gets away with it, it is not only because he is an exceptional storyteller — it is also because he is dealing with a story comprised of a great number of trivialities, which nevertheless add up to a touching tribute to the grandparents and extended family who raised him. Since he has no major events to recount, Saramago focuses on bringing to life the tiny things he is able to remember even into his eighties: disputes with classmates, the neighbors he came to appreciate or fear, girls with whom he shared infantile intimacies. The boyhood Saramago paints is marked by a fragility and an honesty it would be hard to have expected from the tough guy he was known to be in Portugal and internationally. It's beautiful, moving, and more importantly it is proof that Saramago was capable of writing the kind of stuff even his most intelligent detractors would appreciate.
For those whose ambition is to become authors, there is no other book I would recommend right now. Not because you will find its pages filled with advice from a foremost novelist, but because Small Memories is a perfectly executed example of the importance of compassion and attention to detail that marks the tradition in which Saramago was working. In this memoir he shelves the heavier kind of irony, the political overtones, the experimentation, and instead demonstrates how even the most inconsequential details from a person's childhood can, in the right hands, be used to immense effect.
To be released in the US on May 11, 2011.