By Jose Saramago.
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
245 pages
San Diego: A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., 1997
ISBN: 0-15-601059-3

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2004

Jose Saramago often befuddles me. I sat like this in front of my computer after finishing Blindness and The Stone Raft. In all those cases I was just blown away by the language of his writing, the complexity of the plot structure and had a deep felt sense which I couldn’t quite articulate, that I was in the presence of a great master of fiction and philosophy – but what in the world had I just read? That’s today again. When I finished The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and The History of the Siege of Lisbon I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to say. And I simply never really understood The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

The basic story line of All The Names is surrealistic, very reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Senhor Jose works for the central registry, presumably in Lisbon, but the city is never named. The building itself is ancient, a couple of blocks square and filled with cards on file. This is the registry of births, marriages, divorces, remarriages and deaths. Nothing is done by modern machinery, yet the time seems to be contemporary. One might not be so surprised that they are not using computers, but there is even no xerox machine, nor any other such accommodations to the 20th century. No air-conditioning, (though nothing is mentioned about heat), and the clerks still fill cards using pens dipped in real ink wells.

The bureaucracy of the central registry is absolute and authoritarian. The simple clerks are divided into teams each with a head clerk. These head clerks deal with deputy clerks, and they in turn deal with the central registrar himself, the absolute authority, the god of the establishment. Senhor Jose, while 50 years old is still a simple clerk. However, this is not too surprising since there are only 6-8 upper-level folks, so upward mobility is not easy.

By a quirk of circumstances we learn that until a few years ago most of the clerks lived in very small homes build up against the side wall of the central registry building. These were torn down and the clerks all moved. However, one house was left for architectural history and Senhor Jose happens to live in that house. The back wall of his house contains a door into the registry building, but he is not allowed to use that, though he has a key, and even in terrible weather or when he is sick, he must still go all the way round the block to the front of this massive building.

Saramago is a great pains to build the inner picture in the reader of the darkness of the building, the oppressiveness of the authoritarian structure, and the fear of the registrar himself in which the clerks live.

Early on we learn that Senhor Jose has a hobby in which he collects newspaper clippings of famous people, there not being too many of them in this small country. In a daring decision which Senhor Jose cannot even imagine he has made, he decides he needs to flesh out what he knows of his famous folks by including the material on their cards in the central registry. He decides to copy each of these cards, but since it is simply unthinkable to do so in the work day, he begins to sneak into the registry building at night to borrow and copy these cards, thus adding the birth, parental data and such to his knowledge of the celebrities in his “collection.” One evening he “borrows” five cards to work on them, but, in his house he drops them and when picking them up discovers he somehow has six cards, not five. The sixth is the card of some unknown and unfamous woman. Senhor Jose treats this accident as some sort of transcendental message, and resolves to learn more about this never named 36 year old woman. Thus begins the real plot of the novel.

We follow Senhor Jose on a madcap set of strategies to uncover what he can of the woman on the card. I will spare readers these details since they are fascinating to read and even though he is writing about the most mundane of “detective” stories Saramago manages to build suspense and even terror in the reader over Senhor Jose’s exploits. Actually, it is this ability of Saramago to create such drama and excitement in this reader at least, over this harmless and meaningless search, that again affirms for me the brilliance and power of his writing.

Senhor Jose himself reminds me in many ways of J. Alfred Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s poem. Like Prufrock we can imagine Senhor Jose as a meek little obedient civil servant, who can never imagine taking any serious risks.

“Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”

Prufrock could never muster such courage, but Senhor Jose astonishes himself by going forward, by not only sneaking into the registry and stealing the cards, but in caring out his “dangerous” mission of trying to discover who is this woman named on the card.

Yet like Eliot’s Prufrock, Saramago has created this simply, wimpy clerk so that with Eliot we might say of him:

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
      So how should I presume?”

But presume he does.

Eliot’s Prufrock is fairly straight forward. A frightened man, wishing for love and normalcy in a dully ordinary life. Senhor Jose, however, lives in a world much more similar to the life of Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial. Life Joseph K, Senhor Jose has no family name, and in the course of the entire novel we never learn the name of the woman or any other person. In All The Names all the people are nameless.

Like Joseph K’s arrest, this “task” comes to Senhor Jose is a very mysterious manner, the accidental appearance of the sixth card.

Caution: Spoiler in this paragraph – if you plan to read the novel, I suggest you skip over this paragraph:

And further, like Joseph K’s great mystical scene in the cathedral with the mysterious figure, Senhor Jose runs into an exciting and mystical shepherd in the cemetery where he searches the woman’s grave.

End of the spoiler.

Like Kafka, this novel of Saramago (and like some of his other novels) 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.

What is this book all about? I’m really not sure. There does seem to be one distinction being played out. A notion of distance in figuring out the meaning of human existence. A distinction that teeters between the radically close up subjective meaning of life, and the longer-term notion of meaning, a sort of philosophically objective notion of life.

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. We live, we are named and in being named have this short existence of being known, then we live the fate of “all the names” and disappear into the meaningless history of the unknown. Even the “famous” folks have this happen to them, though Saramago never mentions the small few “names” which do seem to last nearly forever in human history.

Wherever the famous people in his collection went, they always had a newspaper or a magazine following in their tracks and sniffing around them for just one more photograph, one more question, but nobody wants to know about ordinary people, no one is really interested in them, no one cares what they're up to, what they think, what they feel, even when they try to make you believe otherwise, it's all pretence. If the unknown woman had gone to live abroad, she would be beyond his reach, she might as well be dead, Full stop, end of the story, murmured Senhor Jose, then, he thought, that might not be the case, for when she departed, she would at least have left a life behind her, perhaps only a brief life, four years, five, almost nothing, or fifteen, or twenty, a meeting, an infatuation, a disappointment, a few smiles, a few tears, which seem, at first sight, the same for everyone but which are, in fact, different for us all. And different each time too. I'll go as far as I can, concluded Senhor Jose, with unaccustomed serenity.

The two views (short-term vs. long-term; famous vs. unknown) are not necessarily contradictory, just a matter of proportion. When reading Saramago I am brought up short since he tells a story that seems out of the first category – a story of real people with real people’s lived sense of meaning, but he tells it from the perspective of revealing the meaninglessness of human existence after all.

I sort of like that.

But maybe this isn’t what the novel’s about. It’s part of what the book did to me and the puzzles it raised in my mind, but what is it that Saramago is about? I’m just not sure.

There are two other features of the story which appear to be strong hints from Saramago about what this novel is an allegory of. I’m not sure what to make of the. The first concerns the system of organizing the cards in the central registry. There are two sets of files: one for the living and one for the dead. There isn’t much of a problem of SPACE for the cards of the living. At any given time the number of people alive is roughly the same (he doesn’t seem to allow for a gradual population growth), thus a finite assigned space works well. However, the files of the dead, the second set of files, keep growing and growing. Several times already the city has had to take the back wall out of the building and extend it another ½ block. And how does one file the cards of the dead? If one uses alphabetical order, which one would expect for retrieval purposes, then every now and again, one would have to move all the cards in physical space to make room; this would create great problems of just the LABOR to do this.

In a critical moment in the novel the registrar, whom we have subtle reasons to believe knows about Senhor Jose’s “hobby” and his search and is in some way “involved,” gives a lecture to the staff in which he announces they are about to begin a new filing system in which all the names will be in one large file. No more separation of the living and the dead, since they aren’t really separate. Aren’t really separate? What does this mean? They are just all names and whether they are living or dead names doesn’t matter? It this the same thing as the two different notions of living I describe above? Puzzling.

Secondly, the building of the central city cemetery is the exact same architecture and design as that of the central registry. Hmmmm. This is obviously significant, and Saramago goes on and on about it. But what does it really mean? Again, is our typical distinction between the living names and the dead names not really a useful or reasonable distinction?

What fascinates me in all this is: if he is that unclear to me, if I can’t even say with some sureness: this is what I’ve read…. Then what is this power he has over me; what is it that made me hardly able to do anything else at all but read and think about this book for the period I was reading it and after. What is it that, when I would put the book down to take my daily bike ride, would leave me lost to the physical beauties around me on my ride in the woods, while I pondered the meaning of the book, or just shook with fear for what might happen to the puny fictional nobody, Senhor Jose?

Jose Saramago (and is even the name of this character significant – a revealing of the deepest inner self of the author himself?) is a powerful and disturbing writer. He puts aside, casts off, our normal, easy and tradition understandings of reality. He plays with alternatives, he raises the huge questions, he toys with non-standard and creative alternatives and does so in a compelling intellectual and emotional art.

This is the sixth novel of Saramago which I have read. I keep being drawn back. I believe there are only two more in English for me to read. Maybe by the time I get and read those more will be available. I hope so. When I put myself in his hands I know I will be challenged. I may not always understand; I may not always be up to the challenge. But I can trust that he will touch the deepest levels of my feelings and point intellectually toward different and alternative understandings of the most fundamental things about reality. What a gift his works are for me.

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett