I borrowed this book from a friend who got it for her birthday from someone who wrote on the first page: “Maybe this is a better path to getting to know Saramago…” I’m not sure how I would rate other paths, but this one was perfect for me. “All the Names” has it all: the perfect sentence, fine humor, just enough magic realism to make this bureaucratic world bearable and, most importantly, a heart.
Mister Jose is a mere scribe at the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths and he is the only who has a name in this novel about names and identities. Jose has a strange passion: he collects newspaper and magazine articles about famous people: actors, sportsmen, politicians, the Pope. He also takes the liberty to predict who will rise to fame and who will crumble down. That is all Jose has in his small, pitiful life that consists of a small, pitiful apartment and a service at the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, where everyone is the same.
The most interesting feature of his job place is the discipline imposed on all employees by The Boss. He is wise, carries within his mind and soul the tradition of all previous Bosses and all previous Central Registrars and he doesn’t talk much – just a few words to give directives, followed by an authoritative wave of the hand. Everyone fears and respects him.
We don’t MAKE decisions… They appear.
One day a decision appears in Jose’s mind to do something differently in his life. And then, seemingly by accident, his life takes quite an unexpected turn, different from anything he would have imagined could happen to him. He starts doing things unthinkable for his age (50-ish), frail body and timid personality: climbs walls, breaks windows, lies and forges warrants from his job place in order to continue a search for someone he doesn’t even know. He is in love with a woman’s name, her birth and divorce certificates, school records and a few photos. That is what his ceiling tells him: that he is in love. He only talks to the ceiling when he is in deep emotional turmoil and it seems it only talks back then.
A new way to write dialogue
Though it seems like nothing much is happening in the material world of the novel, so much power is in the sentences that describe Jose’s inner world. But not only that. There are a few beautiful friendships formed, very subtle and timid, yet direct and stripped of all falsities that pass for friendships today. These are friendships born from desperation and loneliness, except the conversations that pass between these friends are insightful, deep and endlessly amusing.
Form and structure of Saramago’s novel are where its strength lies, not content. It’s the dialogues that start in the middle of a narrative sentence, separated by the rest of the writing only by a Capital letter and a coma, that pleasantly surprised me, parading before me as something innovative and incredibly effective. This is how conversation happens in real life – it simply jumps in our daily thoughts, it interrupts our inner monologues and takes over the plot of that moment. When you think about it, Saramago’s way of writing dialogues in this book is more natural than what we commonly use: dashes, quotation marks, italics and similar.
Another of Saramago’s narrative “tricks” that I love is his long, long sentence that masterfully follows the thought process, but not any thought process. It belongs to a very analytic mind and a very logical thought.
Magic realism in the land of administrative scribbling
Saramago’s logical mind did more than just devise a perfect structure for his Kafkaesque society, where administrative tasks and scribbling on papers are more important than nameless scribes; it also understands the logic of dreams. This society is not only the strict Central Registrar’s building with its perfect geometry, but also the main Graveyard with its loose boundaries that let the living mix with the dead, a ceiling that talks and Ariadne’s string that helps people find their way out of the darkness of the Registrar’s Deaths section.
I’m afraid my thoughts and their paths are as chaotic as Saramago’s are clear and orderly. Still, I hope I managed to convey how much pleasure reading “All the Names” can bring to everyone who love masterful prose and that feeling of being in the hands of a literary virtuoso.