A young boy experiences exquisite happiness and terrible suffering in this Brazilian classic.
Five-year-old Zezé is going through some trying times. His father is unemployed and barely ekes out a living, while his mother and older sister slog it out at a local factory. Zezé has personal demons, often wondering if he's possessed by a bad spirit. The boy can't help but pull pranks which inevitably turn out worse than intended. When Zezé creates a snake out of an old, black stocking, the effect is so realistic he causes a pregnant woman to go into shock. Another time he thinks it a good idea to light a small fire under his uncle's hammock, with similarly dire results. Despite all this, Zezé's essence is sweet. He is touchingly fond of his younger brother Luis, who he calls King Luis, and when the family moves to a new house, Zezé makes friends with a small orange tree in the backyard, which he calls “Pinkie”. Pinkie is an imaginary friend and the two have many conversations about life and its problems. Zezé also likes to call Pinkie “Sweetie”.
As troubles mount at home, Zezé makes friends with an older Portuguese man, Manuel Valadares. The two met in strained circumstances, when Zezé was secretly taking a lift on the bumper bar of his car, but have now developed a special closeness. Manuel almost becomes a father figure, giving Zezé solace and relief from his difficult family life. Zezé achieves great happiness and contentment in his friendship with Manuel, or the “Portuga”, as he calls him, but tragedy soon turns his world upside down.
First published in 1968 by Brazilian author José Mauro De Vasconcelos, My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical, coming-of-age story, set in Rio de Janeiro. Narrated by Zezé, its tone is both tender and endearing. The reader thrills at Zezé's cheeky and boyish adventures, but feels deeply for his hard life at home, where he is often the victim of domestic violence. Zezé's vulnerability and longing to be loved make for a unique story, deeply sad but also full of joy.
Translated by Alison Entrekin
My Sweet Orange Tree, by, José Mauro De Vasconcelos. Pushkin Children's $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books