Sun, May 15, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Small Memories: A Memoir, by Jose Saramago

Although Jose Saramago’s ‘Small Memories’ will not take a place among his major works, an annotated group of photos at the end is worth a gander

By Dwight Garner  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

It is amusing to learn that he dated a woman whose surname was Bacalhau, which means “salt cod.” They would have made delicious children.

Like a wild radish, the young Saramago was peppery. A good deal of Small Memories is a grappling with his earliest awareness of sex. A veil of myth hangs over some of these memories: hiring a boatman to cross a river to meet a girl, ogling a fat prostitute on the way to see a movie alone.

Some of the memories are more quickening. Saramago and one of his young girlfriends were “precocious sinners,” he says. At age 11 or so, he writes, “we were caught one day together in bed, playing at what brides and bridegrooms play at, active and curious about everything on the human body that exists in order to be touched, penetrated and fiddled with.”

After being caught, he recalls, he was spanked on the bottom. There is no word on whether that, too, was a Proustian delight in its recollection.

He is alert to the “friction of saddle on crotch” and to the thumpity-thump beating of hearts “underneath the sheet and the blanket” when necessarily sharing a bed with an older female cousin.

Sex gets the juices running in Saramago’s prose.

His best writing has always had an aphoristic quality, and that’s true here. “There are plenty of people out there,” he writes, “who steal much more than copper wire and rabbits and still manage to pass themselves off as honest folk in the eyes of the world.”

He notes: “The truth is that children’s cruelty knows no limits (which is the real reason why adult cruelty knows no bounds either).” And surely he is attending to literary reality when he writes, in what is probably the sentence in this book I hold most dear: “However hard you may try, there is never much to say about a henhouse.”

Small Memories has an elegiac tone, one that is suggested by something the writer’s elderly grandmother said to him: “The world is so beautiful, it makes me sad to think I have to die.”

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