Thursday, 2 February 2012

Book of the Month: Small Memories (Jose Saramago)

JoseSaramago, who died two years ago, at the age of 87, is often described as the finest Portuguese writer of his generation.

I wouldn’t know about that, because he is the only Portuguese writer I have read; and not a lot. Of the more than dozen novels Saramago wrote, I have read only one: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, his first blockbuster novel. I read this novel more than a decade ago. In it Saramago told the story of Dr. Ricardo Reis, one of the more than eighty heteronyms adopted by FernandoPessoa, Saramago’s most famous literary compatriot. (Saramago was often compared to Pessoa, although he allegedly never liked such comparisons.) I do not remember a great deal of this novel other than that I found it a bit heavy going, not least because of the ponderous style of translation. Sentences went on for miles, with parenthesis, clauses and sub-clauses thrown in, interspersed by a medley of hyphens, colons and semi-colons that only made them more confusing. Maybe it had to do with how sentences are constructed in Portuguese, but the sentences in the translated work did not flow very smoothly. No one, I thought, writing in English would write this way (until I read a novel, entitled The Immortals, by the Indian author Amit Chowdhari. This novel, written in English, read a lot like Saramago’s translated novel. What might this mean? There are three possibilities: (1) Chowdhari translated Saramago’s novel. (I doubt this is the case.) (2) Chowdhari is influenced by the style of translated novels of Saramago. (Possible but not probable) (3) There are writers who cobble up sentences that progress laboriously, like a rusty train from Jabalpur to Bhawalpur.)

However, back to Saramago. If you had asked me, say, a year ago, what I thought of Saramago, I’d have said that Saramago was a very fine writer. I’d have said that—called Saramago a fine writer— even though I have read only one of his novels, the lasting impression of which on my mind was its wearisome translation compared to which the Radio 4 programme on Balkan funeral music was like ten cans of Red Bull. (But that, I accept, may be the limitation of my mind, which, like Keira Knightley’s brassiere, is rather small.) I would have said that because I would have remembered marvelling, in the midst of my battle with the translation, at the grand canvas against which the story unfolded. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is—for want of better phrase—a typical European novel. It proceeds at a leisurely pace with lots of musings about nothing in particular. The intermittent appearance in the novel of Fernando Pessoa (who, appropriately enough, discusses poetry with Dr. Reis) is a deft touch. It is a cerebral novel. And I like to read cerebral novels; that is to say I like to read novels which I think are cerebral; or I like—or think I like— novels which are—or I think are—cerebral. Reading cerebral novels makes me a cerebral person by association, an intelligent reader, which is good for my self-esteem.

There is also the minor matter of the Nobel Prize in Literature which Saramago was awarded in 1998. That clinches the issue for me. I must admit to this weakness in my character. I am inordinately impressed by literary awards. I am in awe of them far more than is required. I shall fight on grimly even when all hope is lost until I reach the end of a novel if it has won a major award. (Like Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer award winner, I hand-to-hand struggled with last year. The award board described Tinkers as

‘a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality.’

The novel was bollocks from beginning to end and left me feeling more exhausted than the Bangala Deshi construction worker fleeing Tripoli.)

So, a year ago, I had two reasons to hold Jose Saramago in high esteem. He had won the Nobel; and I had read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which was described in the Independent as a masterpiece that cast a spell on its reader via an alliance of wit and seriousness, and in the New York Times as written in the classical style (which I think is praise). An American friend of mine says that Saramago is not read widely in America and that he—who likes reading books—has not read any of Saramago’s novels. However, since this friend has a predilection for novels with titles like Skinny Dip and Death by Hollywood, I am not sure how representative his views are of wider book-reading American public.

I hold Saramago in high esteem for another reason. When he died in 2010, I read in his obituary that he was a life-long atheist. While I don’t have a firm ideological position on the subject of God, I am plagued by the suspicion that He may not exist; however when I am up the proverbial creek I prey fervently and beg Him to get me out of trouble. I therefore admire—envy, even—people like Jose Saramago who have resolved this conflict in their minds and arrived at the conclusion I am leaning towards but am too cowardly to embrace fully. 

Saramago was also a life-long member of the Communist party. I find that impressive, although I couldn't tell you why. I have never been a member of Communist party; indeed I have never been a member of any political party. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Socialism and Communism although I am positive that I read somewhere that Communism is the logical endpoint of Socialism. 

Has anything changed since my last assessment of Saramago? Yes. I have read one more book of Saramago. First published in Portuguese in 2006 it, might not have been the last book Saramago wrote, but it is probably the most recent book to have appeared in English. It is a memoir of Saramago’s childhood called Small Memories.

Small Memories is a fascinating book to read. In it Saramago recounts his childhood and the influences that shaped him. The translation unfortunately is not great and detracts a lot from the pleasure you derive from this sweet memoir.

It is not my intention to review Small Memories here; rather I want to put down the impressions left on my mind by these recollections of a humble childhood.

Born into a poor family in the small Portuguese village of Azinhaga, Saramago moved with his parents to Lisbon when he was two. However, throughout his childhood he returned every year to the village into which he was born and where his maternal grandparents continued to live. Both of his maternal grandparents were illiterate and led a hand-to-mouth existence by breeding pigs. Saramago’s childhood was spent not reading great classics or playing a piano but taking the pigs and piglets out of their pens every day and looking after other farmyard animals. His own family wasn’t rich either. Over a period of ten years the family changed addresses ten times, moving from one run down neighbourhood of Lisbon to another. (The frequent moves were not, Saramago assures us, because his father was fleeing creditors.) Saramago’s father eventually got a job in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Lisbon Constabulary while his mother remained a housewife.

Saramago does not say a lot about his parents, but gives the impression that he was closer to his mother than his father. Indeed he seems to be closer to and have spent more time with the mother’s side of extended family. At one point he mentions that his father resented the close emotional bond between Saramago and his maternal grandparents. Throughout the memoir there are brief sketches of the members of his extended family—an aunt and her jealous husband, another elderly aunt with alcohol problem who was once found with her skirt above her waist, singing merrily and masturbating—which bring a smile to your face. Saramago also talks about some of his neighbours and drops hints that his father might have had a fling with a neighbour’s wife. He talks about some of his schools and school mates. He gives us a taste of the inevitable intrigues and petty quarrels between neighbours and amongst members of the extended family, which went on for years.

The memoir has the feel of an octogenarian reminiscing about his childhood taking small sips of Dao, remembering different snippets and anecdotes every day, not paying too much attention to the linearity of the narrative. The overwhelming impression on my mind, as I read the memoir that meanders to and fro in time was of a lonely, solitary and introverted boy. This could partly be because for almost all of his childhood Saramago was an only child—he had an elder brother who died when he was four years and Saramago was eighteen months old—and may not have had the opportunity to make lasting friendships because of his parents’ frequent changes of address.

Saramago’s style of narration is unsentimental, almost flat. Not being able to read the original Portuguese memoir it is impossible to know whether the original style is droll. If it is, I have to say that the translation does not do it justice. It is only in certain anecdotes that the quirky humour comes to the fore: as in the narration of how the family acquired the name Saramago. We learn that Saramago was not the family name (that is surname) at all; the surname was de Sousa. Saramago—which apparently means wild radishes in Portuguese—was family’s nickname. The clerk in the registry office where Saramago’s father went to declare his son’s birth was a drunk and added Saramago to the plain de Sousa his father intended him to be. The father remained blissfully unaware that the family’s nickname—which he had come to dislike since moving to Lisbon— had been inserted between his son’s name and family name until it was time to enrol him in the primary school. Feeling intimidated by the law that demanded to know why his son’s name was different from his the father ended up adding Saramago to his own name. To his dying day Saramago’s father believed that the clerk acted out of spite.

In this memoir, which is like a patchwork, Saramago is in a nostalgic but not dewy-eyed mood. He does not provide us with personal anecdotes or peculiarities of his maternal grandparents, even though he was obviously very close to them. Neither are there any incidents to savour, which stand out or provide an insight into the workings of their minds. You don’t really feel that you know these people; they remain distant figures, hidden behind the mists of time. The only time Saramago’s grandfather really comes alive is, paradoxically enough, in his last illness. The grandfather suffered a stroke and died in a hospital away from his village-home. It would appear that he had a premonition of his death, and a few weeks before he suffered the stroke that killed him, he went around the front of his house, tearful and embracing and talking to all the trees he had planted and tended over the years. It was as if he knew somehow that he wouldn’t be seeing them for very long. The simplicity of narration breaks your heart.

Sarmago was well into his eighties when Small Memories came out, and he was reminiscing about events of almost seventy years earlier. Perhaps that is the reason why he seems unsure of the chronology of events. Many of the reminiscences are preceded by caveats such as ‘if I remember correctly’. As mentioned earlier, Saramago had an elder brother, who died when Saramago was very young. Saramago’s only memory of this brother is rather banal. He remembers being in one of the many apartments in Lisbon where the family lived. There is a dressing table just below the window with its drawers flung open. The brother, Francisco, is trying to climb on to the top of the dressing table when Saramago’s mother enters the room and whisks him away from the window. This is Saramago’s only memory of his brother which, he concludes may be false. 

For me the best part of the memoir came at the end. There are a series of family photographs, and rather than giving them drab captions, Saramago makes comments. This is the only time in the entire memoir he comes closest to showing his emotions. It gives you the feeling that you are sitting next to the great man and he is personally showing you the photo-album.

There is one photograph of Saramago’s maternal grandparents. In it we see the grandparents standing side by side and smiling at the camera, his grandfather’s hand on his wife’s shoulder. Saramago’s comment follows:

‘Here they are, Josefa and Jeronimo. I find that hand on my grandmother’s shoulder very touching. They didn’t much go in for public display of affection, but I know they loved each other.’

Another photograph of Saramago’s stunningly beautiful mother, taken in a studio, shows her gazing, slightly self-consciously, at the camera. Saramago’s comment is:

‘My mother was a beauty. It is not me who says so, but the photo.’

The last photograph in the series is of Saramago’s parents, in their late-middle ages. His father, a distinguished looking man, is wearing a suit and standing next to Saramago’s mother. His mother is smiling broadly at the camera while there is only a hint of a smile on his father’s face, as if he is finding the whole charade amusing. Saramago comments thus:

‘The years passed, and this is possibly the last photo of my father. Despite his various shenanigans, he was not a bad person. One day, when I was already a grown man, he said to me: ‘Now you, you’ve always been a good son.’ At that moment I forgave him everything. We had never been so close before.’

This is the only time Saramago allows us a glimpse into the uneasy relationship between him and his father.

In its review of Small Memories, the Independent commented that the memoir provided a real insight into the making of a great writer. I am not sure about that. There is nothing in this memoir, of a boy born into an impoverished Portuguese family of illiterate peasants, that gives so much as a hint of what he would one day become: a writer of weighty themes and the Nobel Prize winning sage.

If anything Small Memories proves that great writers are born, not made.