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 is what...
(The entire section is 1751 words.)