My Sweet Orange Tree by José de Mauro Vasconcelos is- as prefaced in the book- the story of a little boy who discovers pain.
We follow Zezé, a charmingly precocious five-year-old boy who is growing up in the poorest barrios of 1920s Rio de Janeiro. He is beaten, exploited, ignored, and abandoned by the people around him.
My Sweet Orange Tree is a bildungsroman that makes even the most hard-hearted of readers weep. Think of a briefer, more intense, Oliver Twist in the streets of urban Brazil. The story is much more harrowing knowing that this book is autobiographical and captures the experience of de Mauro Vasconcelos himself.
What I like about Zezé is that he is not a perfect angel that just happens to stumble into tragedy. He is a cheeky, sometimes downright insolent, little boy that pranks strangers in ways that cause more chaos than they are worth.
But the problem isn’t Zezé, it’s the disproportionate response of the adults around him, beating him until he concludes that people simply wish him dead. We are able to see that he doesn’t deserve the abuse he gets, even when we acknowledge that he is flawed and can sometimes be cruel himself.
The saving grace for Zezé is often his own imagination and craftiness. He sang on the streets to earn money for himself and his seven siblings, he opened himself up to the kindness of others like his teachers, he shone shoes, but this cleverness does not only serve a financial purpose, it keeps him emotionally afloat.
Zezé’s imagination gives him companionship and lets him cope with his struggles as he befriends an orange tree in his garden which he calls Pinkie. Instead of enacting revenge on his father, he simply says that “I will kill him if I stop loving him.” He finds fatherhood in someone new, “the Portuguese” Manuel Valadares, who eventually takes him in as his own.
But even Zezé’s imagination is not enough; he continues to be mistreated and continues to have the things that matter most taken away from him. It’s painfully clear that the overarching problem isn’t all Zezé. He can imagine his troubles away or compensate for the adults who don’t pull their weight, but ultimately, the world that surrounds him is cruel and disregards people who cannot offer anything.
José de Mauro Vasconcelos leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouths but also encourages us to picture a world that’s sweeter for kids like Zezé.
My Sweet Orange Tree is available to purchase via Pushkin Publishers.