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.