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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
My Sweet Orange Tree
by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos
Age Range: 12+
Five, nearly six-year-old Zezé lives in Banqu, Rio de Janeiro with his parents and five siblings. Zezé can’t help being naughty and his mischievous pranks are always getting him into serious trouble. When Zezé’s father loses his job the family have to move to a smaller house. A few trees surround their new home and Zezé’s sister Gloria and brother Totoca quickly claim the mango tree and tamarin tree as their own. Gloria suggests that Zezé looks in the backyard to see if he can find his own tree. Discovering a small sweet orange tree it becomes Zezé’s special tree whom he names ‘Pinkie’; a friend with whom he can communicate and tell his secrets to.
Despite the poverty and harshness of his life Zezé forges an unlikely friendship with the driver of a big, shiny car, Manuel Valadares who he nicknames Portuga. Zezé has a maturity well beyond his young years. Through his new friendship he gradually learns new things; how to trust and the meaning of tenderness and in the glow of his growing affection for Portuga, Zezé begins to feel happy. When unexpected tragedy strikes Zezé’s world comes crashing down, rocking him to the core. Will he be able to work through the pain and come to a new understanding with his family learning how to trust and love again?
My Sweet Orange Tree is a bitter-sweet autobiographical novel by Brazilian writer José Mauro de Vasconcelos (1920-84) about his childhood growing up in Rio de Janeiro. A worldwide classic of children’s literature it has never been out of print in Brazil since it was first published in 1968. The novel has been translated into many languages across the globe and has a fresh new translation by Alison Entrekin after being out of print in English for over 40 years.
Mauro tells us on the titles page that this is ‘the story of a little boy who discovered pain’ and it is not until the latter part of the book that the reader feels the full force of those words. The comedic scenes of the lovable young narrator’s sense of fun and mischief making mask the heartbreak to come.
The early gentle pace powerfully builds up as the novel progresses. Who can fail to be horrified by the abuse Zezé suffers in the beatings he’s subjected to at the hands of his family, which appear out of all proportion to his misdemeanours. His explanation to Portuga of why he is so bad is distressing – “I’m worthless, really bad. That’s why it’s the devil that’s born in my heart on Christmas Day, not Baby Jesus, and I never get a single present. I’m a pest, sir. A nuisance. A dog. A lowlife. One of my sisters said that a wretch like me shouldn’t have been born.” My Sweet Orange Tree is a novel that will make you laugh and make you cry – a powerful piece of prose that will stay with you long after you have finished the last page.