“Language, Memory, & the Borders of Saudade” Series | Fourth of Nine Articles

Certain smells carry me back to exact moments in time like very few things can. Memory sequences and even memories of dreams from years prior, perhaps because of the dog upbringing, are sharpest when activated by a familiar scent. Yet this particular word saudade, repeated across Lusofonia and used with such frequency that it was constantly visualized in my mind, became a kind of threshold or time travel device. It’s rhythm and cadence, at least that of Salvador which is the Portuguese I know, seems to carry me as far and as quickly as the smell of dendê cooking on the corners.

From the gorgeous woman I wanted to marry, to my friend who taught me the language of coconuts, to the language instructors in São Paulo and Bahia, to the fragments of sorrow and joy announcing themselves each time I heard the word saudade in Bahia’s streets, a rhythm was stirring in me. And the sound of that word itself conjures the movement of tides, undulating vowels opening and closing, the second ‘a’ seemingly locked between two consonants breathed like a wave crashing under a full moon. All of this suddenly transported me back in time, to childhood.


The melodies and words are tuning in as if I am readjusting a radio antenna, registering sound that was always being transmitted but that I was somehow not hearing. “Êta, samba, cai pra lá, cai pra cá, cai pra lá, cai pra cá,” to “Vai minha tristeza e diz a ela que sem ela não pode ser, diz-lhe numa prece que ela regresse porque eu não posso mais sofrer,” the remembered sound of the needle hitting the vinyl, settling between tracks, “são as águas de Março fehando o verão, é a promessa de vida,” the imagined sound of a dial moving, “Ninguém ouviu um soluçar de dor no canto do Brasil, um lamento triste sempre ecoou desde que o índio guerreiro foi pro cativeiro e de lá cantou…”

Sounds from the past start pouring into my mind, “É luxo só, porém seu coração quando palpita, e se agita mais ligeiro, nunca vi compasso tão brasileiro,” as I trace the contours of this all-encompassing word that embodies memory’s capacity to journey and make the absent fully present. “Porque tão linda assim não existe, a flor, nem mesmo a cor não existe,e o amor, nem mesmo o amor existe.”

And with them, the realization that the sounds of Brazil—before I even knew what Brazil was, before I knew that the music of my father’s record collection that would come blasting though at sunrise each weekend was not from that bend in the river where I grew up—may have created a kind of structure for feeling a perceiving, a framework for experiencing. “O coração tem razões que a própria razão desconhece, faz promessas e juras, depois esquece, seguindo este princípio você também prometeu, chegou até a jurar um grande amor, mas depois esqueceu.”

The imagined radio dial kept moving between tracks in my memory, a reverse train ride of songs that I encountered years later in Bahia.

And suddenly this imagined radio station that was playing the sounds of my childhood—or that was my childhood speaking back across time—played that very specific word that had been transporting me, in my memory’s ear, that first tune came back more clearly, “chega de saudade e diz a ela que…”. Saudade was there from the beginning. That word was part of an opening—a translative opening—from a very early age and I’m only beginning to understand it now. A bridge, “É um passo, é uma ponte, é um sapo, é uma rã” opened.

And there lies the threshold aspect of saudade, what Wilson Harris and Nathanael Mackey might call a ‘gateway complex,’ the ability of memory to carry the past to the present across all time and space dimensions that we attempt to define, unleashing some of the most profound journeys of emotion and the imprint of emotion across even generations.


Written in English by Jacob Dyer Spiegel, this is the Fourth of Nine Articles on “Language, Memory, & the Borders of Saudade” (though it is possible that there will be more than nine after the music opened a new understanding of saudade and the ocean). Stay tuned for the next one! There are many more articles on language, culture, and translation themes on the SiroccoBlue Facebook Page. Please check it out and “Like” it! In addition to writing projects, you can check out some of the projects that I work on as a freelancer.

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