My Sweet Orange Tree, by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (translated by Alison Entrekin), is an autobiographical novel set in Rio de Janeiro. It introduces the reader to five year old Zeze, a precocious and mischievous child who lives much of his life in his imagination. Zeze is the second youngest of seven surviving siblings. Their father is out of work so their mother must put in long hours at a factory to keep the family afloat. There are many others living in poverty in the city but Zeze still finds their situation challenging, especially at Christmas when there is no money for fine food or presents. The hardships the family endure lead them to take out frustrations on their little troublemaker. Zeze suffers regular beatings, believing those who tell him he is a devil child and that it would be better had he never been born.
The family move house when their rent arrears become untenable. In the new back garden is a little orange tree which becomes Zeze’s friend. He plays games around it with his little brother, turning their backyard into exciting new worlds. At school he reveres his kind-hearted teacher, behaving well to please her and excelling in his lessons. Zeze earns what money he can from polishing shoes and assisting a songbook seller. He finds a friend in a wealthy adult who teaches him tenderness exists.
Zeze’s escapades are undoubtedly naughty but he is punished so regularly and severely he regards himself as unlovable. The smallest kindnesses offered are grasped and held close. Zeze may lie and swear with abandon, copying the adults around him, but he feels deeply the unfairness of the life he must accept. He shares his thoughts with his little orange tree which he believes listens and responds.
The narration is way in advance of any five year old I have come across but Zeze’s life is also unlike any situation I have known. He is cunning but never malevolent, although at times he harbours thoughts of bloody revenge when mistreated. He dreams of being a poet, finds beauty in music, is eager to learn and to be seen to attain.
Alongside the poignancy of Zeze’s day to day life there is humour, such as the inappropriate lyrics he sings because he likes the popular tune. He asks the adults he encounters whatever questions come to mind without filter, delighting in new words and their meanings. He ponders why Jesus rewards only those who already have plenty.
This is an unusual little story but one that draws the reader in. The author achieves a fine balance between conveying Zeze’s distress at his circumstances and his imaginative coping strategies. The harshness of the boy’s life is clear yet the telling never feels heavy. A story of survival and a search for love as seen through the eyes of an insightful, lonely child.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.