There’s been so much talk about José Saramago in the book blogosphere recently that I feel like I’m the last one to join the party. Teresa wrote great reviews of Blindness and The Double, and made them sound so wonderful that they are both on my TBR list, but when I went to the library to browse through their collection, All the Names was the one that caught my eye.
The blurb on the cover says that this book is a “metaphysical thriller,” but at first blush, this book doesn’t sound as if it has much potential as a page-turner. Senhor José is a middle-aged, low-level clerk who works for the Central Registry in an unknown city of an unnamed country. The Central Registry is where all personal papers are filed: birth certificates, marriage and divorce, official records, death certificates. The building is divided in half, devoted on one side to the living and on the other to the dead (though carelessness can make the living and the dead share the same shelf space on occasion.)
Senhor José is devoted to his work, and even his hobby echoes his day job: he creeps into the Central Registry at night to look up the records of famous people and record them in a scrapbook. But one day, he finds that the file card of an unknown woman has stuck to the card of one of his famous people. Just like that, he is consumed with the desire to know all about her, to find out more about her than the bare details of her birth, her marriage and divorce. Despite the danger and discomfort that accompany his search, he follows his impulse, finding out more about her — and about himself — than he ever thought possible.
Two things should have been a barrier to my enjoyment of this book. One, as I mentioned earlier, is that on the surface, there isn’t much plot. Allow me to reassure you: this book is riveting. I wasn’t more than a few pages in before I wanted to skim ahead and find out exactly what happened, now dammit now, but the drawn-out pleasure of accompanying Senhor José on his journey is so great that I also wanted to slow down and make it last. The other thing that should have hindered my enjoyment is Saramago’s oddly breathless style. He uses no quotation marks or paragraph indents for dialogue, for instance, just commas, and his sentences and paragraphs are often very long. After a few pages, however, this simply became part of the cadence of the book, and it would have seemed banal without it. (In my opinion, someone ought to give the translator a prize.)
All the Names is about the living and the dead. It’s about choosing life, and the futility of separating life and death; it has the mystery of a labyrinth with your true self at the center, and the dignity of Dante’s journey through hell. It’s about fear and courage, numbers and file cards and names even for the nameless. It’s philosophical and strange, funny and sad, ordinary and quirky. This is a work of tremendous power.