Daily Press (Sunday)

A peasant boy’s life offers encouragem­ent to children

- By Gregory Cowles

Early in José Saramago’s 2006 memoir, “Small Memories,” he tells readers that he briefly considered calling it “The Book of Temptation­s.” His reasons were characteri­stically elliptical and charming: something about Bosch, and sainthood, and the fat prostitute who “in a weary, indifferen­t voice” invited a 12-year-old Saramago up to her room. (He doesn’t report his answer, but given how candid the book is elsewhere, it’s safe to assume he declined.) In the end, he decided “Small Memories” better suited the contents: “nothing of great note,” simply “the small memories of when I was small.”

But for a great writer, there are no small moments, and Saramago (1922-2010) was one of the best. Celebrated for spare, allegorica­l novels including “Blindness,” “All the Names” and ”Death With Interrupti­ons,” he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1998, and is the only Portuguese author ever to have done so.

His memoir, which appeared in English translatio­n the year before he died, is a winsome look at his coming-of-age in the small village of Azinhaga and later in Lisbon.

With its mix of peasant life, boyhood adventure and wide-eyed wonder, it makes perfect fodder for two new picture books for readers 5 and up:

“The Silence of Water,” illustrate­d by Yolanda Mosquera, and the forthcomin­g “An Unexpected Light,” illustrate­d by Armando Fonseca. The texts are adapted from episodes in the memoir. All three books are translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

“The Silence of Water” tells the story of a young

boy fishing in a river without success until a monster barbel takes the bait and snaps the line, leaving the boy with a “ridiculous, useless rod” and a stubborn desire for revenge: “I decided to run home, get another line, float and sinker for my rod and return to settle accounts once and for all.”

The plan is futile, but it offers him a lesson in the virtues and limits of pluck and determinat­ion.

It also offers a canvas for Mosquera’s illustrati­ons, which portray the river and sky in undulating white and the other components in earth tones.

If “The Silence of Water” is about the one that got away, “An Unexpected Light,” due late June, is about a surprise encounter that lingers. It recounts a story that Saramago tells twice in “Small Memories,” about walking to the city with his uncle to sell suckling pigs. It’s a journey of a dozen miles, and the pair has to spend the night at a farm along the way, sleeping in a manger like the holy family. When his uncle wakes him in the small hours of the morning, the boy is startled to find “a milky light over the night and the surroundin­g landscape,” the result of a huge white moon the likes of which he knows he will never see again. Its nearness and brightness strike him with the force of a visitation.

Fonseca’s whimsical illustrati­ons in ink and watercolor use a dark palette fitting for Saramago’s dreamy moodiness.

“An Unexpected Light” ends with a scene I didn’t recall from the memoir and couldn’t find when I searched for it: Boy and uncle, returning home, run into a rainstorm that encircles them yet leaves them dry. “No one could see me, and yet I could see the whole world,” Saramago writes. “It was then that I swore to myself that I would never die.”

There is a rainstorm in the memoir, too. There, out of the pouring rain emerges the figure of Saramago’s grandfathe­r, who had urged the boy to keep working through a storm, and who now goes on to foresee his own death.

I can’t guess why Costa and her editors replaced the original scene, unless it was to play into the story’s religious overtones and end on an upbeat note. But people do die.

One takeaway from Saramago’s memoir is that children are aware of more than they get credit for, and readier to accept it. This is also the implicit message of “The Silence of Water.” More than most, he knew there was consolatio­n even in an empty line. None of the hours he spent at the river was in vain, he writes in “Small Memories,” because, “without my realizing it, I was ‘fishing’ for things that would be just as important for me in the future: images, smells, sounds, soft breezes, sensations.”

It’s lovely to see his work resurrecte­d for a new generation.

By José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa; Triangle Square, 24 pages, $17.95.
‘THE SILENCE OF WATER’ By José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa; Triangle Square, 24 pages, $17.95.

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