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.
...a fine powerful parable.
The New York Times Book Review
The Swedish Academy's citation called his novels 'parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony.' It is a description which perfectly captures his latest novel.
Saramago's gentle voice rings with the unmistakable authority of the true artist.
Christian Science Monitor
...a master far from content to rest on his laurels.
The Wall Street Journal
...a highly intelligent, complex novel, both exasperating and impressive...a book that's not simply read, but experienced.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The deceptive simplicity of Nobel Prize-winner Saramago's prose, and the ironic comments that he intersperses within this story of an obsessional quest, initially have a disarming effect; one expects that this low-key exploration of a quiet man's eccentric descent into a metaphysical labyrinth will be an extremely intelligent but unexciting read. Unexciting: wrong. Within the first few pages, Saramago establishes a tension that sings on the page, rises, produces stunning revelations and culminates when the final paragraph twists expectations once again. The title refers to the miles of archival records among which the protagonist toils at the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths in an unnamed small country whose inhabitants still live by ancient rules of hierarchical social classes. The registry is quixotically disorganized so that the files of those most recently deceased are buried under miles of paper at the furthest remove of the massive building. After more than two decades at the job, 50-year-old Senhor Jos is still a mere clerk in the bureau. A penurious, reclusive, lonely bachelor, Senhor Jos has only one secret passion: he collects clippings about famous people and surreptitiously copies their birth certificates, purloining them from the registry at night and returning them stealthily. Purely by accident, the index card of a 36-year-old woman unknown to him becomes entangled in the clippings he steals. Suddenly, he is stricken by a need to learn about this woman's life. Consumed by passion, this heretofore model of punctilious behavior commits a series of dangerous and unprofessional acts. He forges official papers, breaks into a building, removes records from institutions and continues to enter the registry after dark--all punishable offenses. To carry out his mission, he is forced to become practical, clever and brave. But the more risks he takes, the more astonishing events occur, chief among them that the remote, authoritarian Registrar takes a personal interest in his lowly employee. Meanwhile, Senhor Jos himself discovers shocking facts about the woman he seeks. Saramago relates these events in finely honed prose pervaded with irony, but also playful, mocking and witty. Alternately farcical, macabre, surreal and tragic, this mesmerizing narrative depicts the loneliness of individual lives and the universal need for human connection even as it illuminates the fine line between the living and the dead. First serial to Grand Street, the Reading Room and Doubletake; QPB and Reader's Subscription Club selection; author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Senhor Jose is a low-level clerk in the Portuguese Civil Registry of births, deaths, and marriages, where it is next to impossible for him to squeeze out of that rigid hierarchy even one miserable half-hour off work. A middle-aged bachelor with no interest in anything beyond the dates and facts that are his daily fare, he is especially fascinated by the vital statistics of celebrities. One day he becomes particularly preoccupied by the birth certificate of an anonymous young woman who he learns is a mathematics teacher. As he becomes more and more obsessed with her, his resolve to learn all that he can about her leads to tragedy. The loneliness of people's lives, the effects of chance and sudden flashes of recognition, and the discovery of tentative love are all skillfully woven together in this imaginative parable of the living and the dying. Saramago, the 1988 Nobel literary laureate, has here written a tantalizing anatomy of an obsession. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.]--Jack Shreve, Allegany Coll. of Maryland, Cumberland Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
There is a certain comforting feeling you can get from being in the presence of greatness. Like watching the Chicago Bears of 1985 or the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s, listening to John Coltrane blaze through "My Favorite Things" or Hoagy Carmichael croon "Baltimore Oriole." The outcome is never in doubt. The key game will assuredly be won. A false note will not be struck. All you have to do is sit back, relax and let it all unfold.
This soothing sense also comes from reading the fiction of Jose Saramago. A master storyteller and fabulist in the tradition of Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino and G.K. Chesterton, the Portuguese-born, 1998 Nobel Prize-winning author of Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The History of the Siege of Lisbon and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ speaks in a voice that is at once timeless and instantly recognizable. The voice--mellifluously translated by Margaret Jull Costa (who has replaced Saramago's longtime translator, the late Giovanni Pontiero)--is contemplative yet breathless, playful yet detached, matter-of-fact and yet jarringly passionate. Sentences overlap each other, lines of dialogue are separated from each other only by commas in a serpentine stream of unconsciousness. There is never a moment in his fiction that one doesn't feel oneself in the presence of a master.
The voice that narrates All the Names, Saramago's latest work to be translated into English, is an eerily sepulchral one, a voice that seems almost to speak from beyond the grave. The novel is, in some sense, a detective story. And though there is precious little action, and the only violence consists of a skinned knee visited upon a clumsy, would-be amateur cat burglar, the book has a compulsive, can't-put-it-down page-turnability to it. Senhor Jose, an unremarkable civil servant in an unnamed city's Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, leads a life as gray and rainy as the city around him. Unmarried and in his fifties, his only amusements are his occasional visits to prostitutes and his one hobby--compiling newspaper clippings about celebrities. While copying down information about these celebrities from the files at the Central Registry--a gray, labyrinthine place lorded over by a distant godlike figure referred to only as the Registrar--he stumbles upon the file card of a thirty-six-year-old woman and, thinking it to be destiny, sets out to discover all he can about her life.
His desperate search for the unknown woman leads Senhor Jose on a consistently surprising and often harrowing journey that finds him becoming more and more bold, leading him to forge documents, ask probing questions of her neighbors, break into the school she attended as a child and, in one particularly chilling scene, spend a night in another labyrinth: the city's sprawling, overgrown cemetery, which Saramago describes as an octopus with sixty-four tentacles. The unofficial motto of the cemetery is the same as that of the Central Registry: All the Names.
Saramago's novel doesn't have the same tireless ferocity as Blindness, which described with unremitting terror the chaos and brutality that result when an epidemic of white blindness strikes a city. This is a quieter piece, one that has more in common with the desperate romance and intellectual playfulness of The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a mischievous copy editor named Raimundo--who has more than a little in common with All the Names' Senhor Jose--changes one word in a history book and, in so doing, attempts to change history itself. Though the new novel does not require of the reader any arcane historical knowledge, the sporadically self-referential All the Names does, in fact, contain knowing references to that work and others (including the slim 1999 parable The Tale of the Unknown Island), as well as references to Saramago's life; he did work until age sixty as a civil servant, and the inspiration for this novel comes partly from his attempts to find out about his brother who died more than seventy years ago at the age of four. It is also a rich, literary work rife with references to Virgil, Dante, Herman Melville and Heraclitus, and echoes of Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges. Though in interviews Saramago has often played down parallels between his love of labyrinths and that of the brilliant essayist and short storyteller Borges, much of All the Names reads like the one great novel that the master of the short form never wrote.
Saramago is often referred to as an atheist writer, and his Nobel Prize drew the ire of the Vatican, which blasted the Nobel committee for honoring an "inveterate communist with anti-religious views." And, yet, there is not only a masterful wit at work here but also a spiritual quality and a solemnity. And they mitigate what might otherwise have been a particularly bleak and morbid, though still intellectually challenging, meditation on how we view the living and the dead, celebrity and obscurity, loneliness and the search for human connection. The final moment of the book, when Senhor Jose, armed with only a flashlight, begins finding his way through the dark realm of the dead, is a strangely hopeful one. Life springs out of death, hope emerges from despair, sight follows blindness and even in the seemingly all-encompassing darkness, one of our time's greatest novelists can't help himself from letting shine a small glimmer of light.
From the Publisher
"A psychological, even metaphysical thriller that will keep you turning the pages in spite of yourself, and with growing alarm and alacrity."-The Seattle Times
"A novel that reminds readers how much loneliness can be like death. . . . Saramago is one of the best."
-Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
"Within the first few pages, Saramago establishes a tension that sings on the page, rises, produces stunning revelations and culminates when the final paragraph twists expectations once again."-Publishers Weekly (starred)
"From the beginning, Saramago is in perfect control of the narrative, and the result is a tour de force."-Denver Post
PRAISE FOR BLINDNESS
"Blindness is a shattering work by a literary master."
-The Boston Globe
"This is an important book, one that is unafraid to face all the horrors of the century."-The Washington Post
"Extraordinarily nuanced and evocative . . . This year's most propulsive, and profound, thriller."-The Village Voice
Read an Excerpt
Above the door frame is a long narrow plaque of enamelled metal. The black letters set against a white background say Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths. Here and there the enamel is cracked and chipped. The door is an old door, the most recent layer of brown paint is beginning to peel, and the exposed grain of the wood is reminiscent of a striped pelt. There are five windows along the façade. As soon as you cross the threshold, you notice the smell of old paper. It's true that not a day passes without new pieces of paper entering the Registry, papers referring to individuals of the male sex and of the female sex who continue to be born in the outside world, but the smell never changes, in the first place, because the fate of all paper, from the moment it leaves the factory, is to begin to grow old, in the second place, because on the older pieces of paper, but often on the new paper too, not a day passes without someone inscribing it with the causes of death and the respective places and dates, each contributing its own particular smells, not always offensive to the olfactory mucous membrane, a case in point being the aromatic effluvia which, from time to time, waft lightly through the Central Registry, and which the more discriminating noses identify as a perfume that is half rose and half chrysanthemum.
Immediately beyond the main entrance is a tall, glazed double door, through which one passes into the enormous rectangular room where the employees work, separated from the public by a long counter that seamlessly joins the two side walls, except for a movable leaf at one end that allows people in and out. The room is arranged, naturally enough, according to a hierarchy, but since, as one would expect, it is harmonious from that point of view, it is also harmonious from the geometrical point of view, which just goes to show that there is no insurmountable contradiction between aesthetics and authority. The first row of desks, parallel with the counter, is occupied by the eight clerks whose job it is to deal with the general public. Behind them is a row of four desks, again arranged symmetrically on either side of an axis that might be extended from the main entrance until it disappears into the rear, into the dark depths of the building. These desks belong to the senior clerks. Beyond the senior clerks can be seen the deputy registrars, of whom there are two. Finally, isolated and alone, as is only right and proper, sits the Registrar, who is normally addressed as "Sir."
The distribution of tasks among the various employees follows a simple rule, which is that the duty of the members of each category is to do as much work as they possibly can, so that only a small part of that work need be passed to the category above. This means that the clerks are obliged to work without cease from morning to night, whereas the senior clerks do so only now and then, the deputies very rarely, and the Registrar almost never. The continual state of agitation of the eight clerks in the front row, who have no sooner sat down than they get up again, and are always rushing from their desk to the counter, from the counter to the card indexes, from the card indexes to the archives, tirelessly repeating this and other sequences and combinations to the blank indifference of their superiors, both immediate and distant, is an indispensable factor in understanding how it was possible, indeed shamefully easy, to commit the abuses, irregularities and forgeries that constitute the main business of this story.
In order not to lose the thread in such an important matter, it might be a good idea to begin by establishing where the card indexes and the archives are kept and how they work. They are divided, structurally and essentially, or, put more simply, according to the law of nature, into two large areas, the archives and card indexes of the dead and the card indexes and archives of the living. The papers pertaining to those no longer alive are to be found in a more or less organised state in the rear of the building, the back wall of which, from time to time, has to be demolished and rebuilt some yards further on as a consequence of the unstoppable rise in the number of the deceased. Obviously, the difficulties involved in accommodating the living, although problematic, bearing in mind that people are constantly being born, are far less pressing, and, up until now, have been resolved in a reasonably satisfactory manner either by recourse to the physical compression of the individual files placed horizontally along the shelves, in the case of the archives, or by the use of thin and ultra-thin index cards, in the case of the card indexes. Despite the difficulty with the back wall mentioned above, the foresight of the original architects of the Central Registry is worthy of the highest praise, for they proposed and defended, in opposition to the conservative opinions of certain mean-minded, reactionary individuals, the installation of five massive floor-to-ceiling shelves placed immediately behind the clerks, the central bank of shelves being set further back, one end almost touching the Registrar's large chair, the ends of the two sets of shelves along the side walls nearly flush with the counter, and the other two located, so to speak, amidships. Considered monumental and superhuman by everyone who sees them, these constructions extend far into the interior of the building, further than the eye can see, and at a certain point darkness takes over, the lights being turned on only when a file has to be consulted. These are the shelves that carry the weight of the living. The dead, or, rather, their papers, are located still further inside, in somewhat worse conditions than respect should allow, which is why it is so difficult to find anything when a relative, a notary or some agent of the law comes to the Central Registry to request certificates or copies of documents from other eras. The disorganisation in this part of the archive is caused and aggravated by the fact that it is precisely those people who died longest ago who are nearest to what is referred to as the active area, following immediately on the living, and constituting, according to the Registrar's intelligent definition, a double dead weight, given that only very rarely does anyone take an interest in them, only very infrequently does some eccentric seeker after historical trifles appear. Unless one day it should be decided to separate the dead from the living and build a new registry elsewhere for the exclusive use of the dead, there is no solution to the situation, as became clear when one of the deputies had the unfortunate idea of suggesting that the archive of the dead should be arranged the other way around, with the remotest placed farthest away and the more recent nearer, in order to facilitate access, the bureaucratic words are his, to the newly deceased, who, as everyone knows, are the writers of wills, the providers of legacies, and therefore the easy objects of disputes and arguments while their body is still warm. The Registrar mockingly approved the idea, on condition that the proposer should himself be the one responsible, day after day, for heaving towards the back of the building the gigantic mass of individual files pertaining to the long since dead, in order that the more recently deceased could begin filling up the space thus recovered. In an attempt to wipe out all memory of his ill-fated, unworkable idea, and also to distract himself from his own humiliation, the deputy felt that his best recourse was to ask the clerks to pass him some of their work, thus offending against the historic peace of the hierarchy, above as much as below. After this episode, the state of neglect grew, dereliction prospered, uncertainty multiplied, so much so that one day, months after the deputy's absurd proposal, a researcher became lost in the labyrinthine catacombs of the archive of the dead, having come to the Central Registry in order to carry out some genealogical research he had been commissioned to undertake. He was discovered, almost miraculously, after a week, starving, thirsty, exhausted, delirious, having survived thanks to the desperate measure of ingesting enormous quantities of old documents which neither lingered in the stomach nor nourished, since they melted in the mouth without requiring any chewing. The head of the Central Registry, who, having given the man up for dead, had already ordered the imprudent historian's record card and file to be brought to his desk, decided to turn a blind eye to the damage, officially attributed to mice, and immediately issued an internal order making it obligatory, at the risk of incurring a fine and a suspension of salary, for everyone going into the archive of the dead to make use of Ariadne's thread.
It would, however, be unfair to forget the problems of the living. It has long been known that death, either through innate incompetence or a duplicity acquired through experience, does not choose its victim according to length of life, a fact which, moreover, let it be said in passing, and if one is to believe the words of the innumerable philosophical and religious authorities who have pronounced on the subject, has, indirectly and by different and sometimes contradictory routes, had a paradoxical effect on human beings, and has produced in them an intellectual sublimation of their natural fear of dying. But, returning to the matter at hand, no one could ever accuse death of having left behind in the world some forgotten old man of no particular merit and for no apparent reason merely for him to grow ever older. We all know that, however long old people may last, their hour will always come. Not a day passes without the clerks having to take down files from the shelves of the living in order to carry them to the shelves at the rear, not a day passes without them having to push towards the end of the shelves those that remain, although sometimes, by some ironic caprice of enigmatic fate, only until the following day. According to the so-called natural order of things, reaching the farthest end of the shelf means that fate has grown weary, that there is not much more road to be travelled. The end of the shelf is, in every sense, the beginning of the fall. However, there are files which, for some unknown reason, hover on the very edge of the void, impervious to that final vertigo, for years and years beyond what is conventionally deemed to be a sensible length for a human life. At first those files excite the professional curiosity of the clerks, but soon a feeling of impatience begins to stir in them, as if the shameless obstinacy of these Methuselahs were reducing, eating and devouring their own life prospects. These superstitious clerks are not entirely wrong, if we bear in mind the many cases of employees at every level whose files had to be prematurely withdrawn from the archive of the living, while the covers of the files of those obstinate survivors grew yellower and yellower, until they became dark, inaesthetic stains at the end of a shelf, an offence to the public eye. That is when the Registrar says to one of the clerks, Senhor José, replace those covers for me, will you.