Study Guide

All the Names

by José Saramago

All the Names Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

All the Names is a nightmarish dystopia filled with nameless people, except for a man known only by his first name, Senhor José, who works in the lowest echelon of a labyrinthine organization called the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. It is the task of this rigid and highly controlled bureaucracy to produce index cards that contain essentially meaningless and impersonal sets of dates and statistics about each individual in the city. The lonely José, whose hobby is to collect information about famous or notorious people, slips into the registry to pick up five more cards, and by chance he also collects a sixth card that records the name and birth, marriage, and divorce dates of an ordinary thirty-six-year-old woman, whose name is never revealed. José feels compelled to learn all he can about her, looking for information from various sources, including the woman’s parents, and even breaking into her old school at night to find further information. In attempting to recover the unknown woman’s identity, José realizes that he has fallen in love with her, but almost at once he locates the final piece of information about her—her death certificate. Understanding that she has committed suicide only a few days earlier, he is left with one final destination, the General Cemetery where she is buried.

The godlike Registrar, who heads the organization, has placed José under surveillance the entire time, but instead of punishing him for his independent investigation, he praises him for bringing positive new changes. The Registrar declares that the files of the living and the dead will no longer be separate, and that the living person’s recovery and recognition of the lives of those who have gone before will be, in its way, an almost metaphysical act of resurrection. Additionally, in returning her name to the files of the living, Senhor José feels he is also recovering the nobility of his own identity, transforming himself from an unprepossessing cog in the machine of the Central Registry into someone of considerable worth.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (July, 2000): 1976.

The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 2000, p. 17.

Library Journal 125 (August, 2000): 161.

Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2000, p. 15.

New Statesman 129 (October 4, 1999): 57.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (October 15, 2000): 8.

Publishers Weekly 247 (August 28, 2000): 53.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 15, 1999, p. 26.

The Washington Post Book World, September 24, 2000, p. 15.

All the Names Extended Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In an unnamed city conjured up by novelist José Saramago, all the names of the inhabitants, living and dead, are cataloged in the massive central registry of births, marriages, and deaths. Each birth means the creation of a new document, and each death means shifting the document from one vast section to an even vaster one. A hapless researcher who ventures into this archival morass does not find his way out again for days. Periodically, the ancient municipal building which houses the records must be expanded to accommodate all the names.

All the Names was originally published as Todos los Nombres in 1997, and, after its author received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, an English edition became more commercially viable. The seventh book by the Portuguese novelist to appear in English, it tells the story of an undistinguished functionary, a fifty-year-old bachelor whose name is given merely as Senhor José. One of the ironies in Saramago’s title is that, with the exception of a protagonist who is provided an unremarkable first name (which he shares with the author) but no surname, all the names of the characters are withheld from the reader. For all the meticulousness of the novel’s prose assertions, the physical appearance of its characters, too, remains vague.

Senhor José toils as a clerk at the central registry, where a rigid hierarchy of eight clerks, four senior clerks, two deputy registrars, and one registrar determines tasks and esteem. A conscientious, friendless drone who lives entirely for his work, who lives alone, and who has not missed a minute on the job in twenty-five years, Senhor José is consumed by anxiety over discharging his duties. He labors in constant dread of judgment by those above him, who all reserve the largest share of chores for those beneath them. The registrar himself remains magisterially aloof from the daily toil of filing and finding records. Yet, though it jeopardizes his position, Senhor José pursues a secret hobby of compiling dossiers on the one hundred most famous people in the country. He makes clandestine copies of the central registry’s files of famous names and amasses as much additional information as he can about them. One Wednesday evening, when the index card for an unknown thirty-six-year-old woman happens to cling to the records of five celebrities, Senhor José suddenly decides to learn as much as he can about her, for reasons he can never quite decipher. All the Namesrecounts one drab man’s quixotic quest to discover the truth about another obscure life.

“Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things,” contends a character consulted during Senhor José’s investigation. All the Names is an extended metaphor, which is to say an allegory, about the impossibility of knowing another and knowing oneself. Though it is a depository for what are generally called “vital records,” the central registry is a monument to the moribund, the wrong place to go to understand the qualities of a particular life. Saramago broadens the reach of his allegory by not specifying much about the novel’s setting or its characters. Though they might be the best way of explaining things, the cunning author’s metaphors are as perplexing as the labyrinthine central registry—or as the massive general cemetery, which is also designed to account for everyone. “All the Names,” readers are told, is the unwritten motto of the general cemetery, though it is even more appropriate for the central registry, an enormous archival catacomb where not just the dead but also all the living are recorded and cataloged. Both institutions are, in any case, “digging at either end of the same vine, the vine called life and which is situated between two voids.”

Even more than in his previous book, Ensaio sobre a segueira (1995;Blindness, 1998), in which a city is beset by a mysterious epidemic that deprives residents of their sight, Saramago teases the reader with intimations of enlightenment. As in História do cerco de Lisboa (1989;The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1996), in which the scribble of an obscure scribe revises history and the Iberian Peninsula floats away from the rest of Europe, the reader is reminded of how factitious...

(The entire section is 1751 words.)