Visions of Portugal

On José Saramago's late-in-life memoir of village life in Portugal

By / October 2018

The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago wrote sprawling novels (Baltasar and Blimunda), slim novels (Death with Interruptions), historical novels (The History of the Siege of Lisbon), contemporaneous novels (All the Names), heretical novels (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ), diverting novels (The Elephant’s Journey), not to mention the searing dystopian novels (Blindness and Seeing) for which he gained an international readership.

He had a handle on fact, a feel for folklore, a disregard for authority, and a flare for spinning out stylistically ultramodern, thematically timeless parables of deep moral consequence. Few novelists have had more ambition and executed upon it more ambitiously.

In 2006, when he was 83, Saramago released a memoir, which, like a missive from the grave, came into English translation in 2010, a year after he died. Called Small Memories, the book has the great fabulist squinting through the haze of memory to give shape to his formative years. His reminiscences are remarkably vivid. Time creates distance; it also supplies perspective. “My last things will be first things slipping from me,” wrote Seamus Heaney, another European Nobel laureate, in his 1996 collection The Spirit Level. The line could serve as a fitting epigraph for Saramago’s mnemonic account.

He writes about losing his fishing pole at the hands of a barbel fish in the Tejo River, skinning his knee at a festival in honor of St. Anthony (an incident that causes him, at the ripe age of 6, to question Catholicism), listening to partisan radio for news of the Spanish Civil War, discovering Moliere, and tussling between the sheets with female cousins.

Earlier recollections are harder to parse. Saramago’s first memory, best as he can tell, is of Francisco, his older brother, climbing a chest of open drawers in the cellar of a Lisbon apartment. Francisco died from pneumonia when Saramago was eighteen months old. Is the memory an invention? The writer suspects as much. But the question, he concludes, is largely incidental. When it comes to remembrance certainty and conjecture cannot do but coalesce, and yet the memories remain. “I don’t really believe in so-called false memories,” Saramago writes. “I think the difference between those and the memories we consider certain and solid is merely a question of confidence.”

At 176 pages, Small Memories is a breezy, discursive ode to youth and young manhood. It gives further proof of Saramago’s considerable gifts as a storyteller. Along with Francisco (“I often think that, by living, I have tried to give him life”) and his mother (“So beautiful”), he writes of his maternal grandparents, who raised pigs in Azinhaga, the village where the author was born, with a tenderness that can only be called love. His grandfather could be a figure in a Jean-Francois Millet painting:

The rain is pouring down, the wind is shaking the leafless trees, and from times past comes an image, that of a tall, thin man, an old man, I realize, now that he draws nearer along the sodden track. He is carrying a crook over his shoulder and wears an ancient, muddy cape from which drip all the rains of heaven. Before him go the pigs, heads down, snouts to the ground. The man approaching, blurred amongst the teeming rain, is my grandfather. 

Of his grandmother he writes:

There you were, grandma, sitting on the sill outside your house, open to the vast, starry night, to the sky of which you knew nothing and through which you would never travel, to the silence of the fields and the shadowy trees, and you said, with all the serenity of your ninety years and the fire of an adolescence never lost: The world is so beautiful, it makes me sad to think I have to die.”

Azinhaga figures prominently in Saramago’s coming of age. Perhaps his rural beginnings made his adjustment to life on Lanzarote Island, where he went into self-imposed exile following the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a kind of homecoming. Although his mother and father uprooted to Lisbon when he was a toddler, Saramago returned often to the village. He chased lizards, attended dances, napped on cornhusks, and listened to his grandfather (“his face, fixed but expressive, seems to have been carved out by an adze”) tell stories beneath a giant fig tree.

With its silver olive groves and skittering lizards, Azinhaga emerges in Small Memories as something of an idyll, what DreA?n was to Camus, Aracataca to Marquez. Lisbon was all crowded apartments, cockroaches, and busy streets. Azinhaga was wind, water, dirt, trees. Saramago calls the village “the cradle in which my gestation was completed, the pouch into which the small marsupial withdrew to make what he alone could make, for good or possibly ill, of his silent, secret, solitary self.”

The idyll was not to last. Saramago laments Azinhaga’s olive groves being replaced by fields of hybrid corn. But even during his childhood the outside world was intruding, the political movements that would rattle Europe sidling ever closer. On a trip to Azinhaga in 1933, Saramago pried open the lid to the wooden chest where his grandmother stored beans.

As the bean-dust set his fingers ablaze, the 10 year old uncovered a stash of newspapers. On one of the pages was a picture of Engelbert Dollfuss, the Austrian chancellor. He was surprisingly short. He was watching a military parade. A year later he would be assassinated by the Nazis.

“We often forget what we would like to remember,” writes Saramago, “and yet certain images, words, flashes, illuminations repeatedly, obsessively return to us from the past at the slightest stimulus, and there’s no explanation for that; we don’t summon them up, they are simply there.”

At the end of his life, nearly seven decades on, after all the wars and awards and created worlds, Saramago could still call to mind that black-and-white picture from the bean chest.


Drew Bratcher is the editor of EthnoTraveler.