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Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for An Unexpected Light
Book cover for An Unexpected Light

Author José Saramago
Illustrated by Armando Fonseca
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Nobel Prize winner José Saramago tells a quiet and poetic story, an excerpt from his book Small Memories, of a lasting childhood experience of simple, soulful joy.

The narrator's memories of a lost childhood paradise focus on two glorious days when he helped his uncle take some piglets to the market in Santarém. They traverse dusty roads, sleep in a barn and awake to a miraculous moonglow, and hear the animals in their “infinite conversations.” The journey, the night, the wind, the light. . . . This poetic story is an unforgettable adventure narrated by José Saramago and presented alongside Armando Fonseca’s fanciful and evocative illustrations.

A very special gift for readers of all ages.

Book cover for An Unexpected Light
Book cover for An Unexpected Light

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blog — January 22

The Picture Books of José Saramago

In the following review, originally published in the New York Times Book Review, NYTBR Poetry editor Gregory Cowles explores our picture book adaptations of José Saramago's childhood memoir, Small Memories, translated by Margaret Jull Costa — The Silence of Water, illustrated by Yolanda Mosquera, and An Unexpected Light, illustrated by Armando Fonseca.

The Nobel laureate’s “Small Memories” is a mix of peasant life, boyhood adventure and wide-eyed wonder.

By Gregory Cowles

A textured, earth-toned landscape illustration shows a small boy standing under what looks like an olive tree on the banks of a white river just as the line on his fishing rod has snapped, knocking his hat off his head as he falls backward. A little brown dog looks on from a few yards away. A breeze blows greenish brown leaves off the tree.

Early in José Saramago’s 2006 memoir, “Small Memories,” he tells readers that he briefly considered calling it “The Book of Temptations” instead. 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, though, he decided that the title “Small Memories” better suited the book’s contents: “nothing of great note,” in Saramago’s estimation; simply “the small memories of when I was small.”

But for a great writer, of course, 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 remains the only Portuguese author ever to have done so.

Saramago’s memoir, which appeared in English translation the year before he died, is a winsome look back 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 a couple of new picture books: “The Silence of Water,” illustrated by Yolanda Mosquera and translated (like “Small Memories”) by Margaret Jull Costa, and the forthcoming “An Unexpected Light,” illustrated by Armando Fonseca and again translated by Costa.

THE SILENCE OF WATER (Triangle Square/Seven Stories Press, 24 pp., $17.95, ages 5 and up) tells the story of a young boy fishing in a local 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 — even the boy calls it “the most absurd idea of my entire life” — but it offers him a lesson in the virtues and limits of pluck and determination.

It also, happily, offers a canvas for Mosquera’s textured landscape illustrations, which portray the river and sky in undulating white and the other components (the boy, his dog, the teeming plant life and assorted villagers) in layered earth tones. There’s a suitably old-fashioned feeling to the art, which rewards close attention and includes parallel story lines and characters evocative of Saramago’s memoir: a girl in braids catching a frog, a young mother in a polka-dot dress holding her wading toddler’s hand.

If “The Silence of Water” is about the one that got away, AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT (Triangle Square/Seven Stories Press, 32 pp., $18.95, ages 5 and up), which will be published this spring, is about a surprise encounter that lingers.

The book 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 — “four country leagues at piglet pace,” Saramago writes — and so 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 young Saramago 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. The nearness and the brightness of that moon strike him with all the force of a visitation.

This story is accompanied by Fonseca’s illustrations in ink and watercolor, their dark palette of grays and blacks a fitting accessory to Saramago’s dreamy moodiness — though in their whimsy and sense of motion, they’re more Matisse than Bosch.

In one drawing, the pigs seem to be dancing on the hills. In another, the boy or his uncle clings to the stem of a fantastical plant to avoid being carried off by the wind.

Besides the muted colors and the dream landscape, Fonseca also leans into the story’s nighttime feel with shooting stars and whirling constellations that look like geometric doodles. The moon, when it appears, is so large that its top is cut off by the edge of the page; by comparison, the boy and his uncle are insignificant enough to become nearly lost amid the plants that surround them.

“An Unexpected Light” ends with a scene I didn’t remember from the memoir, and couldn’t find when I searched for it: The boy and his uncle, returning home, run into a rainstorm that wholly encircles them yet somehow 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.”

I can’t guess why Costa and her editors chose to replace the original scene with the new one (which presumably hails from elsewhere in Saramago’s extensive catalog), unless it was to play into the story’s religious overtones and end on an upbeat note.

I’m not sure they needed to. People do die, after all, Saramago notably among them.

One takeaway from his memoir is that children are aware of more than they get credit for, and readier to accept it.

In its way, this is also the implicit message of “The Silence of Water,” with its young fisherman coming face to face with the weight of disappointment. More than most, Saramago knew there was consolation even in an empty line. None of the hours he spent at the river were 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.”

Saramago may be gone, but it’s lovely to see his work resurrected for a new generation.

Gregory Cowles is the poetry editor of the Book Review and senior editor of the Books desk. More about Gregory Cowles

José Saramago

JOSÉ DE SOUSA SARAMAGO, (November 1922 - June 2010), was a Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the theopoetic human factor. More than two million copies of Saramago's books have been sold in Portugal alone and his work has been translated into 25 languages. He was a founding member of the National Front for the Defense of Culture in Lisbon in 1992, and co-founder with Orhan Pamuk, of the European Writers' Parliament (EWP).