Small Memories, By José Saramago trans Margaret Jull Costa

Piglets, pipes and the roots of creativity

Portugal's Nobel laureate José Saramago has written that if you read his epigraphs, you already know what's in the book. That on the flyleaf to Small Memories comes from his novel The Book of Exhortations and reads "Let us be led by the child you were". The memories are not only small and immediate, vignettes with a sense of being interjected rather than relayed, but told with the immediacy of a child's gaze, so very different from an adult's reflection.

In Saramago's words, "as a child in those far-off days, time seemed to be made up of a particular kind of hour, each one of which was slow, dragging, interminable." This sense of time has as much to do with being rural as with being a child. Saramago's boyhood was divided between his parents' home in Lisbon (which changed address on a regular basis) and his grandparents' in the village of Azinhaga. That always retained its mud floor; unlocked door and lack of windows; broken balcony; and hens and piglets – the runts brought into bed on cold nights to keep them alive – wandering in from the yard.

Poverty is omnipresent but, in an odd way, unimportant. Eggs were eaten (endlessly) in the countryside, boiled roots at times in the city margins; blankets were pawned in summer to be retrieved for the winter; water was tapped from the pipes before it reached the meter and the water company employee turned a blind eye; clothes were handed down or borrowed for special occasions. Though it was not the case that the young José never met anyone rich - there was at least one posh boy at his school who strategically befriended him - he insists that he was as much an "ordinary" child as he is now a man of the people.

Alongside the family folk tales (Aunt Emilia sold roasted chestnuts outside a bar, got drunk on the proceeds, then could be found flat on her back on the bedroom floor, skirts hitched up, masturbating and singing loudly) these memories gradually evoke a writer in the making.

Before starting school, young José – whose mother and grandparents were illiterate - was already deciphering the newsprint on the papers used to cover the chest of dried beans. He recounts how his father "had gone from being a humble digger of fields to a public servant, a policeman no less". Promotion allowed him to bring home a daily paper, and neighbours had a subscription to a popular magazine.

José's social mobility and obvious ability meant he had no problem with leapfrogging through school. The author – journalist, editor, non-fiction and, above all, fiction writer in the making - draws on the excitement of intellectual experiment. In his parents' generation, the family migrated from country to city and changed social class. Another generation, and José – who has long lived in Spain, travelled enormously, and calls Brazil his second country – is a citizen of the world.

These "small memories" are a homage to Saramago's family and homeland, but also praise the endlessly renewable life of the mind. His style is deceptively simple, a challenge to any translator, and Margaret Jull Costa is an expert in capturing it. While Small Memories is a real insight into the making of a great writer, it is also a testament to the achievement of a great translator.

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at the University of East Anglia

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