It's not often one reads a book that roughly parallels one's own life, but such is so with Saramago's memoir, small memories. Saramago grew up poor in pre-WWII Portugal, that time a continental divide between the modern world and the postmodern one.
Saramago spent his early years in the city of Azinhaga, a hardscrabble proposition. There, he attended to the usual adventures of a young, un-monied lad: games and pranks and school alternated with farm chores. And during these years, he hunted and fished and established a decent relationship with his grandparents. His relationship with his parents? Not so much, apparently.
My own life seems eerily similar. I came of age in a U.S. military family, deeply dependent on my grandmother for emotional support, something my father, his psyche deeply embedded in his rural roots and the after effects of World War II, couldn't give me, my mother quietly doing what she could to smooth over her menfolks' growing conflicts.
Later, the Saramagos moved to Lisbon, where the father made a pragmatic metamorphosis from farmer to policeman. Saramago's schooling began there in earnest, and he proved to be worthy of a stellar education. As with my own life, there's little to forebode a writing career during Saramago's early years. But that's hardly his project with this memoir, which seems intended merely to establish his cultural roots.
The tone of small memories is that of an elder telling his grandchildren of those years, his mind flitting from vignette to vignette as in conversation. He's one to change from past tense to present in this book – again, as in conversation – but he does it with a trickster's knowledge of syntax and grammar. Unlike most memoirs these days, he's depicted nothing in the way of childhood trauma (his early years spanned both the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism in Germany), and his parents, while strict and somewhat distant, hardly seemed abusive.
The book was translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, and with only a pair of instances, the text moved well into English.
All things considered, Saramago's writing and reflection is underscored with the warmth of a man who, at the end of the day, has lived a fulfilling life. I can only hope that at my own end, I've lived as rich a life as Saramago.