Thursday, 15 November 2012

All The Names

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 stripped 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 Central 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’s inscribing it with the causes of death and the respective places and dates, each contributing to 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 discriminated noses identify as a perfume that is half rose and half chrysanthemum.
(Translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (1)

Although every novel is a personal matter to the author, the circumstances behind the creation of All The Names stemmed from deeply intimate aspects of José Saramago’s life. When Saramago was two-years old, his older brother, Francisco, died. Many decades later he started playing amateur detective to discover more about this brother he had barely known. His first setback was that the boy’s death certificate wasn’t in the hospital he thought it was; the facts, as his mother had told them, were wrong. With the help of friends he eventually discovered the place, date and causes of death. This may not seem anything remarkable, an old man curious to find out more about his brother, but since the ways of creativity are mysterious, it’s what it took to inspire Saramago to start working on a novel about an ordinary clerk called Senhor José who works for the Civil Registry and, one day, becomes obsessed with the file of an ordinary woman he never met.

Senhor José, a low-ranking clerk in the Civil Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, is the typical unassuming, meek and un-heroic protagonist of Saramago’s novels. Saramago liked ordinary people, people connected to the land, labourers, artisans, farmers, people who did things with their hands. He wrote Raised from the Ground about landless peasants, Baltasar and Blimunda about the construction workers of a convent, The Cave about a potter, and wrote of the carpenter Jesus Christ too. Saramago’s vision of history sought to give a voice to the voiceless, restore dignity to the anonymous masses thrown the margins by the Great Men of History. But at the time he was writing the novel it was being said that history had reached its end anyway, deconstructionism had put a stop on great narratives, and generalized cynicism impeded people from believing in Great Men any longer. Instead people follow celebrities, the mediocre heroes for a mediocre age. Senhor José, who is very much a mediocre man, collects files about famous people, files he searches in and copies from the archives of the Civil Registry. One night when he’s inside the Civil Registry – his house is right next to it, and he has a key to the door separating both buildings; this was common in Portugal’s civil service up until the ‘80s – looking around in the archives, he accidentally picks up the file of a woman: she’s not famous, she’s not special, she’s an ordinary woman. But for some reason – French novelist André Gide would call it the acte gratuit – he becomes interested in her and starts investigating her life, a quest that disrupts his orderly life and puts him at odds with his colleagues and superiors.

I recently re-read All The Names because it’s one of my favourite José Saramago novels. I remembered it was a great, and often hilarious, novel. The greatness and the humour were still there on my second reading. But I also noticed other things. Beneath the comical absurdity of the protagonist’s outlook and quest there was horror, pain and loneliness hiding, and themes were lurking in the margins which I hadn’t sensed before either: a critique of the society of information, of the loss of privacy, of the worship of celebrities, of the feeling that people aren’t worthy anything anymore, and of the feeling of emptiness of the modern era.

Only Senhor José has a name in the novel, everyone else is mentioned by their jobs – the other clerks, his boss – or by a characteristic – the unknown woman, the unknown woman’s neighbour, as if they aren’t complete people; obviously they’re not, they’re just fictional characters, but isn’t Saramago perhaps hinting at the fact that the importance of people has devalued so considerably that they no longer matter, that they don’t even have names anymore? I, for instance, know the names of famous people I see on TV and magazines better but I don’t know most of names of the neighbours I say good day to every day. The narrator says of Senhor José’s collection: “The famous people in his collection, wherever they go, always have a newspaper or magazine following their tracks and sniffing their smell for another photo, for another question, but of ordinary people no one wants to know anything, no one cares truly about them, no one is worried about knowing what they do, nor what they think, nor what they feel, even in the cases where one attempts to show the opposite, it’s pretence.

So this got me thinking that through Senhor José Saramago is attempting to celebrate the anonymous individuals again, to remember the reader of the value and importance of common people. When Senhor José first comes across the unknown woman’s file, he only knows data like her name, date of birth, date of marriage, etc. But during his investigation he fills her silhouette with substance, he learns about her life from questioning her parents and people who knew her, he breaks into her former school to steal the school reports, he collects pictures of her, slowly aging, a process that says, this woman existed, she was here, she had a life too, even if she didn’t contribute with anything special or remarkable to human history, she loved people, and she was loved, she had joys and sadness, she was a human being too. But the omniscient narrator, who in Saramago’s novels is always very intrusive, says that “there is no one in the world to whom the strange case of the unknown woman matters.” Save for Senhor José; if she’s special, it’s only because he has decided so. Maybe the book is saying that what matters is not being loved, but loving someone.

Perhaps Senhor José sympathises so much with her because he sees himself in her, his quest for her is also an inward quest for his self. He has come into this world and expects to leave it without leaving any traces: he has no wife, no family. “I have no one to talk to,” he says to an old lady living in the unknown woman’s former building. At one point he claims he has to pay for sex, when the need is too much. Otherwise, he leaves for work, he’s an exemplary employee. He lives next to the Civil Registry and never misses a day and arrives late. He doesn’t have human relationships, his colleagues are often cold to him. His only pastime is collecting files about famous people. The unknown woman becomes his first connection with mankind in a long time, one can even see his interest for her as a love story – Eduardo Lourenço, a renowned Portuguese literary critic called the novel the best Portuguese love story ever written, much to the author’s amusement – but it’s a love story that, like the most interesting, only brings him unhappiness, because he’s pursuing an unattainable goal that in the process nearly wrecks his peaceful existence. And something more sinister is obfuscated by his mad love for her; on my second viewing I couldn’t help thinking the protagonist is basically a stalker. He uses several means – illegal, unethical – to gather information about a woman, private information too, without her knowing it. He questions her parents under false pretences, he enters her apartment, he reads her school reports. Perhaps in the age of social networks where we freely and eagerly exchange personal information, where bosses search for their employees’ information in Facebook, where people upload videos of themselves doing pointless things as if they were the centre of the universe, perhaps Senhor José’s intrusion upon the unknown woman’s private life won’t matter anything, but I think it’s an interesting testimony of how quickly people have gone from being wary of sharing their personal lives with others to living in an enthusiastic promiscuity of personal information.

Still, Senhor José is such a pathetic figure (in the original meaning of the word, worthy of pathos), that the reader can’t help being on his side once the details of his lonely life are revealed: “People, like this Senhor José, are found by us everywhere, they use their time or the time they think remains of their life collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, match boxes, books, watches, sports shirts, autographs, rocks, clay dolls, empty soda cans, angel figures, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, seats, stools, music boxes, bottles, bonsais, paintings, cups, pipes, crystal obelisks, porcelain ducks, old toys, carnival masks, they probably do it out of something we could call metaphysical anguish, perhaps because they can’t stand the idea of chaos as the sole ruler of universe, therefore, with their meek energies and without divine help, they go about trying to put some order in the world, for a while they still manage to do it, but only until they can defend their collection, because when the day of its dispersal arrives, and that day always arrives, either because of death or the collector’s fatigue, everything goes back to the beginning, everything becomes confused again.” Senhor José’s loneliness is highlighted by the many imaginary conversations he has with hypothetical interlocutors, or sometimes with his house’s ceiling, a particularly contemplative ceiling (if anyone has ever read Death With Interruptions, they’re like the conversations between Death and her talkative scythe).

José Saramago was a pessimist and a sceptic, and his novels aren’t famous for happy endings; Ill say that the protagonist’s quest doesn’t have a happy ending and I’ll leave it at that. But all Saramago’s novels contained hope, even if that hope is sometimes nothing more than a necessary fiction to go on living. If the world can’t be saved, at least people can save themselves from the numbness of the modern era, maybe. Like I wrote above, Senhor José’s investigation of the unknown woman is above all a rediscovery of himself and a discovery of the world beyond his collection of celebrities. This discovery he makes is often as painful, absurd and scary as the world, but, like the world, it’s also filled with beauty and unexpected joys.

1 All other translations are by me.


  1. What a sensitive reading of this work (which I just read myself a couple weeks ago). I was deeply moved by this book; your commentary beautifully articulates many of the semi-formed reactions I had floating around about it and helps me see a lot of elements I hadn't noticed (the "stalker" idea is intriguing). I love the idea of All the Names as a love story, and the implication - the notion that what matters is not being loved, but loving someone - that it's Senhor José's curiosity, his absurd developing interest in this unknown woman - that leads him out of his dusty, lifeless labyrinth. By the way, your phrase "an enthusiastic promiscuity of personal information" ought to be patented.

    1. seraillon, thanks for the kind words. I'd love to read your thoughts about the novel too.

  2. enjoying your thoughts on all this ... this was where I started with JS, looking back it seems to be the other novel dealing with one of Pessoa's own (and in fact the trinity of Pessoa Kafka & Borges) ...

    "He explained that his latest novel, Todos Os Nomes (All the Names), the tale of a bureaucrat employed at the registry office in an unnamed, imaginary country, should be read as a meditation on otherness: the other, who may appear to be our adversary, can also become the path through which we discover our own authentic self."

    Elective antinomies ...

    1. nnyhav, thanks for the link:

      "José Saramago began his address by evoking the modern universe of bureaucracy and recalling the figure of Franz Kafka. He felt that if there are three writers who represent the spirit of the twentieth century, they are: Kafka, for his exposure of the dehumanising forces at work in our world; Fernando Pessoa, for his perception that the individual self is in reality multiple; and Jorge Luis Borges, whose literature of ritual announces a world itself composed of rituals."

      This is a very interesting trinity indeed. It doesn't surprise me they're all in Saramago's list of 11 favourite writers.