Thursday, December 19, 2013

All the Names by Jose Saramago

All the Names / José Saramago; translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
San Diego, CA: Harvest Harcourt, 2001, c1999.
245 p.

At this time last year, I was finishing up one of Saramago's earlier novels, The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. Fortunately for me, I liked All the Names much, much more than that one!

This novel has Saramago writing in a more assured manner, and with many elements that I loved. Main character Senhor José is a clerk in the Central Registry Office, which is very regimented and hierarchical.  Its purpose is very detailed record-keeping of births, death, marriages, divorces...those sorts of things. Each position has its duties, and one does not step outside of that routine.

Senhor José is a little bit unusual, however...he lives in a tiny house attached to the Central Registry, with a connecting door. There used to be a row of such houses for all the employees, but all that is left now is this last one that was overlooked in all the building and rebuilding, a ramshackle kind of place inhabited by Senhor José. This makes it easy for him to wander the Central Registry at night, something he never, never would have ever thought about doing, until one day in the course of his work he came across a file card for a unknown woman. This name caught his attention and drove him to commit all sorts of unlikely acts in his desperate urge to discover her. He moves outside himself, and beyond his routines, as his curiosity takes him out into the wider world.

This is a fascinating read for those intrigued by the same things as Saramago; record keeping, identity, the thin divide between life and death, archives, inexplicable obsessions and so forth. I really enjoyed this one, as Saramago's writing is in full flow. His characteristic style is in evidence and so is his humour, with Senhor Jose exhibiting eccentricity in his actions and in his conversations with his ceiling (very entertaining indeed). Nevertheless there is a melancholy and painful aspect to the tale as well.

I thought that Saramago was clever not to make this into a love story, but rather a search for and examination of what makes us who we are in the world. Senhor Jose is fascinated by the ordinariness of this random woman and tries to discover the kind of information about her that he has collected on various celebrities. He comes to see that our ordinary lives, despite not being written about in gossip columns, are worthy of attention, meaningful and important.

I'm still not sure what to think of the rather ambiguous conclusion. I'll have to reread and ponder a bit more. But definitely recommended if you like this kind of philosophical, innovative writing.

9 comments:

  1. I've heard this one is good and it does indeed sound like it! I think I have a copy on my shelf, if not I will have to get one :)

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    1. Yes, I was glad to find that I enjoyed this one as I usually love Saramago's style. Having Senhor Jose essentially living in the Central Registry made me smile, as I once lived in my workplace too...

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  2. Conversations with the ceiling? This novel sounds offbeat and interesting--my cup of tea.

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    1. Saramago has such an oddball sensibility -- the ceiling bits were quite fun.

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  3. My godson gave me a Saramago novel for my birthday perhaps as much as ten years ago and I'm ashamed to say that it still sitting on my book shelf unread. I'm not even certain which one it is, although fairly sure it isn't this. However, you have intrigued me with this review and I shall have to go and retrieve it and add it to the tbr list for next year.

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    1. There are still a number of unread Saramago novels on my shelf...I look at it as a positive, still something to discover! I'll be interested to see which yours is, though.

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  4. What a great review of a fabulous book. It sounds a bit [hmm... unexciting] but yet I think you really nailed it when you said that it's really about ordinary lives being "worthy of attention, meaningful and important." There is that one line in it that I have often cited, and it goes likes this -- “… we know that it is the search that gives meaning to any find and that one often has to travel a long way in order to arrive at what it near.” [p.53]
    Saramago is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I agree with you that All The Names is a finer book than The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy.
    Could be that I am biased -- because I myself am an archivist by profession, and a bit of a loner. So in these ways, I could relate somewhat to the protagonist.
    I wish you a great Christmas week. I don't know about your weather system right now but here in Ottawa, it is REALLY WINTER.

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    1. I love that quote. I am also drawn to this protagonist, for his archival tendencies and his wandering about his workplace at night :) I really enjoyed this one.

      Happy Christmas to you, too -- we didn't get hit by this storm as badly as you, or Toronto, did. It's still icy and wintery though!

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    2. May your holidays be the best ever.

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!