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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
What's in a Name?
As you might imagine, the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths is organized in the following manner: active files (birth and marriage certificates) are kept up front; inactive files are stored away in the back. Files become inactive when the death certificate is attached. Because the number of new active files matches the number that become inactive every year, the active section never grows or shrinks, while the death archives grow infinitely as the years pass. This bastion of administrative bureaucracy is soberly manned by a small regiment of lackeys and lorded over by the wise and untouchable Registrar. One low-level lackey, Senhor José, is the hero of Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago's latest novel, All the Names.
A dependable, unobtrusive employee, Senhor José leads a simple life. He has one good suit, lives alone in a humble apartment that through a quirk of urban development connects in the back to the Registry, and he spends his free time keeping scrapbooks of famous people. Senhor José's safe, quiet life takes a sudden turn when he decides one evening to up the ante on his celebrity scrapbook by including birth, marriage, and death certificates, which entails sneaking into the Registry after hours to borrow the necessary documents. In the dark, he accidentally grabs the wrong certificate and becomes, from that point on, pathologically obsessed with finding the Unknown Woman whose name he stumbles upon. His feckless investigation follows the kind of paper trail he's most familiar with: marriage and divorce licenses, school records, the inevitable death certificate and autopsy report, and, finally, a graveyard map that leads him to a numbered plot in the suicide section of the General Cemetery. There, in the first light of dawn, Senhor José meets a prankster shepherd who switches around the markers on the new graves, delivering the dead back into anonymity and saving them from the indignity of being just a number, certificate, or name. And so, on the last possible stop of Senhor José's search, he loses his Unknown Woman. Yet, through the often hilarious twists and turns of his strange and reckless investigation, he's unearthed the story of her life. Perhaps more importantly, he's created a memory where there was none, and come to care for a woman he never met and never would meet.
From the necropolis of index cards to the quintessential figure of a lonely, fearful, clerk, All the Names has the makings of a Kafkaesque parable about the loss of humanity -- except it's a beautiful, platonic love story, a love story that's made all the more wrenching by how very one-sided it is and by the nagging question, unique to suicides: If she'd known how much she was loved, would she still have wanted to die? Critics have variously described Saramago as a postmodern writer or a political writer, but the most convincing description is of Saramago as a metaphysical writer. His 1998 novel, Blindness, an allegory about the curse of vision in a world succumbed to blindness, certainly has political implications. But the underlying question of Blindness is metaphysical: Do I exist if others can't see me? It's the same kind of question that defines All the Names: Do you exist if you're dead? And, if you're loved, how can you not exist? The dead are not filed away in an endless, dark, labyrinthine archive but are among us in memory and in their stories. A clerk who traffics in human existence according to forms and certificates finds and loses love in a single gesture. He brings a woman back to life in the same way a great novelist brings characters to life in our imaginations. All the Names is a testament to the power of compassion and imagination, to the miraculous feat of storytelling.
Minna Proctor is a writer and translator. She lives in New York.