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[370] All the Names – José Saramago

Senhor José’s life is nothing but ordinary: in an unnamed city he works as a lowly clerk for the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Death where the living and dead permanently share the same shelf in a single archive. In his early fifties, José has a laudable modesty of those who do not go around complaining about the voluminous workload befallen him. He attempts his work sedulously, with great precision and sense of responsibility, despite his suffering from vertigo caused by a fear of height when he climbs the ladder to access files on ceiling-to-floor shelves.

Senhor José finds solace in collecting news clippings of the country’s famous, notorious and elite. One night, seized by an impulse and despondence over the inadequacy of his collection, José scuttles across the threshold of the communicating door that parts his lodging from the Registry and pilfers from the file drawer five precious records cards of the famous people. No sooner has he finished copying carefully and returned the cards to their rightful places than he spots the extra card, the unwanted one that belongs to an unknown, ordinary woman. Until then José’s tepid and quiet life is no longer the same as he becomes morbidly obsessed with this unknown woman.

What follows is our protagonist’s exhaustive (and somehow preposterous) quest for the unknown woman through the clues that trail behind from the record cards: her most recent address, her last records from school, her neighbor from 33 years ago, and her parents. I’ll most certainly leave the readers to learn the outcome of José’s investigation. One common theme has surfaced in this novel. Like Saramago’s other books such as Blindness, The Stone Raft and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the notion of loneliness (isolation vs. connection) prevails and governs the shaping of Saramago’s characters and the actions they take. José is a loner who only takes interest in people’s birth certificate. Those whom he encounters and indebted upon, especially the woman who lives on the ground floor, suffers from loneliness as she purposely engages in a circuitous conversation with José since she has nobody to talk to. José’s peers at work, who treats him with scornful commiseration, as they are jealous at the Registrar’s unmerited favoritism toward José upon his recovery from illness, are lonely as well.

A sound quote from the book has always resonated in my mind, “I don’t believe one can show greater respect than to weep for a stranger.” (205) All The Names evokes the moment of recognition in the lives of the living and dead. Through the search for this woman to whom José has neither a personal or sentimental attachment, Saramago evokes in us the unbeatable and redemptive power of compassion, something that surpasses life and death and the vast interval of time that separates us from the most remote dead.

Saramago’s writing is thought provoking as usual, richly marinated with philosophical overtones such as “[registry] routine presupposes unconscious certainty” and “we do not make decisions, decisions make us.” (29) Throughout the book José engages in some importunate inner fantasy dialogues as well as conversation with the plaster ceiling. This book is not to be taken lightly. The richness and obscurity of the prose forbid you to rush through it but to let it seep through slowly. The shift in prose styling (from more taut, crisp and direct prose to a slightly more sating prose with cumbersome sentences) from Blindness and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis makes All The Names a more difficult, arduous read—but very addictive. The story line is surrealistic, very reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Like most of Saramago’s works, the novel teeters between the world we know as “real” and a fuzzy, dark, murky world that is not only shadowy, but even unreal, dream-like, mystical. It’s like an extraordinary reality. In the short-term, the close-up, each life has meaning and worth at least to the person living it and to those around them who make them a part of their own lives. Yet, from a much more distant and long-term perspective, human existence has no meaning. reading him is always disturbing (in a good way) because he puts aside, casts off, our normal, easy and tradition understandings of reality.

264 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

9 Responses

  1. This was the first Saramago I ever read and I LOVED it. So bizarre and quiet, yet mesmerizing and compelling. I can’t wait to re-read it one day!

  2. You’ve described Sarmago perfectly, based on the one book of his that I’ve read, Blindness. My expectations are very high after that one, but I don’t want to explore more of him.

  3. Loved this book as well as Blindness. Glad to see that youndid as well.

  4. I found this to be his most touching book. And his characterization was near perfect.

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