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