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The Child That I Am

Ana Paula Arnaut

As Pequenas Memórias, by José Saramago, Caminho, 149 pp, €9.45, ISBN: 972-2118315

The Nobel literature prizewinner José Saramago was born in 1922 in Portugal’s Ribatejo province. Best known in the English-speaking world for his novels from the 1980s and 1990s Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, The History of the Siege of Lisbon and Blindness, Saramago came late to international acclaim. His novels, often written in the form of allegory, present subversive versions of historical events, emphasising the experience of the common man as opposed to the official version. Saramago lived most of his adult life under the right-wing Salazar and Caetano dictatorships. Since 1969 he has been a member of the Portuguese Communist Party, widely seen as one of the most “unreconstructed” in Europe, and he has appeared on the party lists for elections to the European Parliament. After a bitter dispute with the Portuguese church and state over his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) Saramago went to live in voluntary exile in Spain’s Canary Islands.

It isn’t good to look back to the past. The past is that cupboard full of skeletons that the English – a discreet people who see little sun and even less excitement – refer to. But at times memory, through pathways we cannot explain, brings past images, colours, words and figures to the present day.

Deste Mundo e do Outro (Concerning this World and the Other, 1985)

In spite of these words from the chronicle “O amola-tesouras”, José Saramago has now published, in As Pequenas Memórias, an account of several episodes from the first fifteen to sixteen years of his life. Readers have already had access to some of this material in chronicles published in newspapers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It seems that to a certain extent what Saramago is now doing is reordering some of those episodes so as to present a cohesive and coherent whole. One should not assume, however, that this presiding autobiographical register will offer us a clear and absolutely linear timeline – nor indeed should one expect a guarantee of the absolute veracity of all that is recounted here.

If the account he articulates is an unfolding, based on memory, of the itinerary of his early life, this is achieved through a narrative that is like a series of small pictures, small discrete and dispersed watercolours from a childhood revisited and re-encountered in and through writing. The writing begins with an account of his memories, firstly, of Azinhaga, the village where he was born and to which he will return in order, in his words, to “finish being born”; of the river Almonda, setting and subject of a Protopoem written in adolescence. He writes of his maternal grandparents – so often evoked on other occasions – of paternal grandparents, parents and the friends of childhood and adolescence, of his move to Lisbon at the age of two, the death of his brother Francisco, of life in Lisbon and successive returns to Azinhaga.

He writes of his schooldays and of reading at home, in a house “where there were no books” because there was no money to buy them, of extra classes with his teacher, Mr Vairinho, and of the importance of the Diário de Noticias (the newspaper in which, later on, some of his chronicles were to be published) in the construction of his personal encyclopedia. There are many other such “stray memories”, and although they are just that, they do offer up some knowledge of “the being that I once was and that I have left stranded somewhere in time”. In this series of memories one can single out, for instance, the “enormously edifying story of Pezuda”, a neighbour of his uncle’s and a participant, along with the family, in a number of local disputes. He has forgotten her real name, he says, but she provides him with an illustration of how courage can also be garnered from others.

As for the being he once was, or rather started out as, one might also single out the explanation he offers concerning his name and birth. The interesting fact about the first is that, as he has already related elsewhere, the family name Saramago he bears today, without having had to “invent a pseudonym”, is the result of an onomastic fraud perpetrated by the officer at the Civil Registry in Golegã, who, under the influence of alcohol and “of his own accord” decided to “add Saramago to the curt José de Sousa my father intended me to be”. (“Saramago”, in Portuguese a wild radish, was the family nickname.) As for his birth, we learn another interesting fact: he was born on November 16th, 1922 “and not on the 18th, as the Civil Registrar has it”. The explanation, simple when one considers those times, is as follows:

It so happened that at that time my father was working outside the region, far away, and as well as not being present for the birth of his son only managed to return home after December 16th, more likely on the seventeenth, which was a Sunday. At that time, and I suppose it’s the same today, the announcement of a birth had to be made within a period of thirty days, with the punishment of a fine for any infringements. As the matter in hand concerned a legitimate son, it would not have occurred to anyone in those patriarchal times to involve the mother or any relative. Since the father was officially considered to be the only agent relevant to the child’s birth (in my enrolment form at Gil Vicente school only my father’s name is included, not my mother’s), they waited for him to return. In addition to this, in order to avoid paying the fine (any amount, however small, would have been too much for the family budget) the real date of birth was put back by two days, and so the situation was resolved.

That at least is one mystery solved. In other episodes, perhaps because the thread of memory does not always, or scarcely ever, follow the desirable and traditional precepts of strict time sequence – and also because one must allow for the inevitable lapses (which are called lapses “of memory”), there are several moments when, with his history well under way, the author feels the need to complete and/or correct information previously provided and given as certain.

Memory has its gaps and it is not always possible to tell truth from lie/invention or what is imagined. Also “feelings cannot be governed”: thus the line between fact and fiction is blurred and a veil of suspicion cast over the absolute and total veracity of this autobiography. This is seen in the doubts about his “earliest memory” of his brother Francisco, which “might be false”; the memory of his visit to the Mafra convent ,of which he has not kept “a more vivid memory than of a statue” of the unfortunate and tattered Saint Bartholomew, something which, eventually, may have lead him to exclude the saint’s statue from the novel Baltasar and Blimunda, (“I do not swear it, but say that it is possible”); in addition there is the lack of certainty about an incident of an almost amorous nature with Alice, (I am not absolutely certain that things happened in that way). Perhaps because of this it is easier to see the point of his interrogation of the natural and human propensity to mix up the facts of the past:

Sometimes I ask myself if certain memories are really my own, if they may be no more than another’s memories of episodes where I had been an unconscious actor and which I would only later become aware of because they had been narrated to me by people who had been present – if indeed they themselves had not heard them related by other people.

No less natural, and human, is the imaginative capacity which at times he brings to his revisiting of the “time-place” of childhood. In this context it is appropriate to quote at some length from the text (the passage is also of interest because it illustrates the family’s financial difficulties and the affective ties that bound him to his maternal grandparents):

The fireplace was small, so that only two people could fit around it, usually my grandfather and I. As always in winter, when the cold caused the water to freeze over during the night inside the jars and in the morning when we had to use a stick to break the layer of ice that had formed, the fire would leave us roasting from its heat in front and shivering with cold behind. When the cold really began to bite it didn’t matter whether we were inside or outside the house. The kitchen door, which looked onto the yard, was more of a gate than a door, with cracks in it where my hand could fit, and the most extraordinary thing was that year after year it had stayed exactly the same. It seemed that it was already old when it was placed on its hinges … It was in this home, humble as most of them were, that my grandparents took refuge after they married. My grandmother, according to popular opinion at the time, was the prettiest girl in Azinhaga and he stood out at the Misericordia de Santarem and was called “black stick” because of his dark skin. They always lived there. My grandmother told me that grandfather Jerónimo spent the first night there sitting in the open air with a stick on his knees, waiting for jealous rivals who had sworn they would pelt the roof with stones. Nobody showed up in the end, and the moon travelled (allow me to imagine it) all night across the sky while my grandmother lay in bed with her eyes open waiting for her husband. It was already a clear morning when they took each other in their arms.

This intense affection for his maternal grandparents, a contrast to his somewhat distant relations with his paternal grandparents – who “did exist, but did not function” – is also highlighted in a number of texts prior to these brief memoirs (we therefore leave aside the numerous references to them in newspaper interviews). We are referring, firstly, to the chronicles “Carta para Josefa, minha avó”, “O meu avô, também” (in Deste Mundo e do Outro) and “Retrato de Antepassados” (in A Bagagem do Viajante). Secondly, and unavoidably, we recall the extraordinarily beautiful and heartfelt speech given at the Swedish Academy on the occasion of the Nobel Prize ceremony (“How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice”, in Discursos de Estocolmo, 1999).

In all the texts mentioned above we would emphasise the simplicity and humanity of people in whom a lack of formal education did not imply lack of wisdom. “People who”, as Saramago said in Stockholm, “were sorry to depart from life, only because the world was beautiful”, like his “grandfather Jerónimo, a shepherd and storyteller, who when he foresaw that death was on its way to find him, went to bid farewell to the trees in his small property one by one, embracing them and crying, because he knew he wouldn’t see them again”. Or grandmother Josefa, (“the quiet serenity of her … ninety years and the fire of an adolescence she never lost”), who exclaims: “The world is so pretty, and I am sorry to have to die.” People, in short, whose legacy we continue to read today in the particular universes recreated by the writer.

The great respect, admiration, fascination and affection that the reader senses accompanied the construction of the female characters in Saramago’s works right up to the present seems to have migrated straight from the world he shared with grandmother Josefa (and also other childhood worlds) to his fictional world. We might select, from so many possible examples, the spiritual force of characters such as M. in Manual of Painting and Calligraphy: A Novel (1977), Faustina and Gracinda Mau-Tempo in Levantado do Chão (1980), Blimunda in Baltasar and Blimunda (1982), Maria de Magdala in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), the doctor’s wife in Blindness (1995) and Ensaio Sobre a Lucidez (2004), Marta Isasca and Isaura Madruga in The Cave (2000), or death itself in As Intermitências da Morte (2005) – each one responsible, in her own manner, for the affective, moral and ideological development of those they live closest to, and especially of the man to whom they relate.

And if we speak of man we should also speak of “Man”. The way in which Saramago draws the contours of certain male characters, capable of enduring the privations of a life that was hardly ever easy, capable also of a sensibility and lyricism that we normally think of as feminine, is not unrelated to the image/memory he bears of grandfather Jerónimo, and which he is intent on perpetuating. This is seen in the characters of João Mau-Tempo (Levantado do Chão), Baltasar Sete-Sóis (Baltasar and Blimunda) and Cipriano Algor (The Cave). It must also be said that in a Saramago novel man is in great measure responsible for forging his own destiny: we are shown his capacity to dispute the ground with the divine entity and fight against the most various forms of adversity. Thus it is said in Baltasar and Blimunda that “it is man’s will that conquers the stars” and it is “easy to see that if man ceases the world ceases”. Here “man” should be read to mean the human being, “Man”.

But this same Man, capable of bringing new worlds into existence, can also be the perpetrator of the most atrocious violations of the essential principles of human coexistence, and this, in one way or another, is clearly denounced in all of Saramago’s fictional production. Towards the end of these Memórias, concerning a period of his life when, for obvious reasons, a clear and conscious perception of the manifold types of violence always exerted over Man was not yet available to him – we read that he came across an image that marked him indelibly:

It was at this time (perhaps still in ’33, perhaps ’34 if I haven’t confused the dates) that as I was walking one day along the Rua da Graça, my usual route between Penha de França, where I lived, and São Vicente, where the Gil Vicente secondary school was then, that I saw, hanging from the door of a tobacconist’s shop right opposite the old Royal Cinema, a newspaper which displayed on its first page the most perfect sketch of a hand preparing to grab hold of something. Underneath was the caption “An iron hand wearing a velvet glove”. The newspaper was the satirical weekly Sempre Fixe, the artist Francisco Valença, the hand was supposed to be that of Salazar.

For the purposes of reading and analysing the novels, the truth is that the name matters little: Salazar, Landed Property, the Inquisition, God, “the Centre” or any other dictatorial and totalitarian entity are, after all, simply different names and different faces of the same attitude (the same concept), which the author denounces every time and against which, every time, he rises up as a humanist defending in humanitarian terms the point of view of the weak and underprivileged.

Let us add that in the novels we now group as the first cycle of Saramago’s fictional production (from Manual of Painting and Calligraphy up to but not including Blindness and leaving aside his first novel, Terra do Pecado (1947), a work the author now says he does not see as his own), that oppressive entity, destructive of individual and collective liberties, has, if not a face, then a name of its own and can be clearly placed in time and space. The following examples, in different ways, allow a reading of the author’s ideology.

The action of Manual of Painting and Calligraphy takes place in the final period of the “Marcelist” regime (Marcelo Caetano, described by the Socialist politician Mário Soares as a Salazar in lighter shades of grey, replaced the dictator who, between 1926 and 1968, embodied the idea of the “iron hand in the velvet glove”), and, through the narrative journey of the main character (H.), elaborates a harsh criticism of the dictatorial regime and a no less harsh criticism of its atrocities and political persecutions. So we learn of António’s political imprisonment in Caxias, “a prison within another larger prison, which is the country”, of the beating to which he was subjected, of “the total absence of scruples” of our leaders and of the “alliances to which they resort to try and smash and neutralise what is already irreversible”. We also read of the raid by the PIDE/DGS (secret police) on the house “of a comrade [where they abuse] physically, morally and psychologically his wife and children while undertaking a search without a legal warrant”.

In Levantado do Chão, a novel whose plot ranges from the beginning of the twentieth century to the months after the revolution of April 1974, this condemnation and criticism permeates the entire fabric of the text and in so doing becomes even sharper. In the novel, the politics of the chief dictator(s) of the regime now translates into manipulation, oppression and persecutions of various kinds carried out by their representatives in the vast spaces of the Alentejo landed estates. Here, the tacit alliance between the elements of the triad that is, ironically, referred to as the “holy trinity” – the State (Lieutenant Contente), the Church (Father Agamedes) and Land (the Lambertos, Humbertos, Dagobertos or, simply, the Bertos who own it) – is part of a scenario in which the people, who must be kept ignorant, are forced to work from dawn to dusk for a miserly salary, to starve and to live in the most degrading conditions.

Failure to obey the stipulated norms of behaviour, the “principles” that direct the fascist regime, leads, in the final instance, to the arrest of the rebels: João Mau-Tempo, Manuel Espada, Augusto Patracão, Felisberto Lampas, José Palminha and Germano Vidigal (one of the characters who is drawn from real life). In a long and poignant episode the narrator gives an account of the imprisonment and torture (and death) of this character, thus bringing to light the many acts of violence committed by the representatives of Salazarism. A comparison with the stories told by former prisoners of the PIDE (see, for example, João Medina (ed), História Contemporânea de Portugal, volume Estado Novo I, pp 188-195) is sufficient to establish the accuracy of Saramago’s account.

In Baltasar and Blimunda, Saramago relates the story of different persecutions and oppressions – or of different faces of the same desire to manipulate and have power over others. In this novel, set in the eighteenth century, the megalomania of King João V (who in fulfilment of a vow wants to build an imposing monastery), and the Inquisition, can be seen to stand in for the roles of the police and PIDE in Levantado do Chão. The repression carried out by the Inquisition has a parallel in the repression, itself highly ideological, exercised during the building of the Mafra monastery, especially after the king’s decision to have his creation expanded to house “three hundred friars instead of the eighty intended” (Baltasar and Blimunda) and to have it inaugurated “two years from then, in the year seventeen hundred and thirty, on the twenty-second of October”, a day when the royal birthday will fall on a Sunday (thought to be, we are told, the most appropriate day for the consecration of basilicas).

Everything having been mulled over and the counsellors having been consulted, it is decided that a much greater number of hands is needed for the work. As there is a scarcity of labour for the work, this magnanimous king puts into operation his divine and regal powers, and orders men to be herded, tied by ropes, like sheep “altering the method, sometimes bound to one another by the waist, sometimes with an improvised collar, on occasions bound by the ankles like galley slaves”.

It is true that the Holy Basilica of Mafra did not condemn men in the same way as the Holy Office (physical torture, death by fire, for example), but it nevertheless condemned them doubly: to forced labour and to the anonymity to which they were consigned in the annals of history. Therefore the narrator is intent on rewriting the other side of the historical record, relegating to a second plane the official heroes and bringing centre stage those who have so far remained anonymous.

Let us add that, in the last instance, the will that moved the two repressive entities was the same: the service of a God who removes himself from the sufferings of men (a line of thought taken up and fully developed in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ in 1991). These two entities – the king and the Inquisition – can be understood as the two arms of that same God. As if the religious arm of the Inquisition were not enough (an extension, on earth, of one of the arms of God), King João arrogates to himself the power of the other arm through his exercise and abuse of temporal power.

In the novels of the second cycle of Saramago’s fictional production, while it is true that humanist and humanitarian concerns still guide the way in which the action and the characters are drawn it is also the case that the scenario becomes more inclusive, more universal one might say. Abandoning a well-delimited temporal and spatial location, and in some instances casting aside also the identification of the characters through the attribution of a name, Saramago seems intent on broadening the range of his socio-political criticism and, likewise, extending the historical and ideological conclusions embodied in the stories. The essential difference between the two cycles (which also involves a stylistic and formal simplification, or, if you like, a more sober, less baroque style) has been explained by the writer through the interesting and enlightening metaphor of the statue and the stone (put forward for the first time in Turin in May 1998 and taken up on several other occasions):

From Blindness onwards, it was as if I had tried to leave the stone’s surface – which was all the other novels – and go right into its interior. These last three novels are attempts to go beyond the surface and see what is inside and, in all probability, lose myself in its interior … What preoccupies me at the moment is to be able to identify: who the devil are we? (Visão magazine, October 26th, 2006)

Thus what has been said about the last three books published until that date - Blindness, All the Names and The Cave – can, and certainly should, also apply to subsequent novels up to and including his last work to go to press (As Intermitências da Morte, 2005). This, let us add parenthetically and somewhat cautiously, even though it still displays the same thematic and ideological concerns, seems to indicate a new cycle of literary production (there is among other aspects a greater degree of adherence to traditional syntax and punctuation and a certain diminution of the sombre tone that characterises the later novels).

In this attempt of his to “go beneath the surface of the statue”, so as to disclose “what sort of people we are”, it makes in fact perfect sense to universalise the nature of the action and the characters involved (through a diluting of referentiality). In the case of Blindness, for example, the time and place of an epidemic of (almost) universal blindness do not matter; the names the characters might bear do not matter. What does matter is to account for a background of faceless persecutions and fears in different guises – fears that appear to grow exponentially and that might take place (might be taking place) anywhere in the world, turning Man into a brutally irrational being. The same can be said of the novel Seeing (2004), a sort of continuation of a saga about the ultimate debacle of humanity, should Man/society not acquire the necessary and urgent consciousness of solidarity and democracy.

What these two works demonstrate is then a different kind of interest in, and approach to, the society and world we live in. A world that is no longer that of the Portuguese time and space (nor that other one, easily identifiable as the origins of Christianity), but the globalised world where values can be rendered meaningless and where Man may no more know who he is – a world where death (a certain kind of death) almost ceases to be shocking when compared with the violations of the most basic human rights.

In one way or another in respect of the novels mentioned in this text and others that, for reasons of space, have been left aside, what we see here is an emphasis on the ancestral and continuous control and repression exerted by the instances of power (secular and/or religious, collective and/or individual). In this context the following quotation from the 1990 chronicle “Uma nova provocação” is useful in so far as it allows us to say that any fascist regime (or individual behaviour) is “like the shark: it has successive rows of teeth, and whenever one breaks or wears out another tooth, freshly sharpened comes forward to take its place … As it is easy to conclude, the only remedy would be to kill the shark or just completely close its mouth. The task has been difficult, since the animal moves convulsively a lot of the time … and it is never in the same place.”

On the other hand, and no less importantly, it is true that, despite his evident awareness of the difficulty of the task, Saramago’s novels always make clear Man’s (that is some men’s) clear ability and will to fight oppression and repression, in every and any guise, in any embodiment of the “iron hand in the velvet glove”. One cannot say therefore that his work is characterised by a pessimistic and dispirited view of the fate of humanity (even when it may seem that way). Despite the sombre and sometimes apocalyptic tonalities that preside over the fictional universes Saramago creates, the stories allow, even if surreptitiously in some cases, a note of hope for the construction of a fairer, more egalitarian and fraternal society to emerge.

There are those who assert that they cannot see or read in the fictions the man behind the author, Saramago the civil figure and civic entity. But it is not possible to dissociate the fictional matter(s) from the experiences lived and translated into these pequenas memórias (“yes, the small memories of when I was small, quite simply. Indeed the author himself has spoken of many connections between his life and his family’s life and incidents in his novels.The being that we surmise behind the writer is surely a product of the being he was in childhood, or rather, the being he was taught to be – or learnt to be. After all, as he insists in Manual of Painting and Calligraphy: “everything is biography. Everything is life as it is lived, portrayed, written: it is to be living, portraying, writing: it is having lived, written, portrayed …”

Ana Paula Arnaut’s essay was translated by Paula Cristina Noga, and the citations from Saramago’s work by John Kinsella of the University of Maynooth.


Ana Paula Arnaut teaches Portuguese literature at the University of Coimbra. She is the author of Memorial do Convento. História, ficção e ideologia (1996) and Post-Modernismo no romance português contemporâneo. Fios de Ariadne – Máscaras de Proteu (2002). Her new study of Saramago, Cânone – José Saramago will appear this year.

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