All the Names

all-the-namesThere’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.

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8 Responses to All the Names

  1. I really ‘enjoyed’ Blindness, this one has to go on the Wishlist instantly!

  2. Thanks for the review. It has made me remove the book from somewhere on the shelves to the soon-tbr-pile.

  3. Teresa says:

    Hooray! I’m so glad you liked this. Saramago’s style is amazing. Even though it seems like it should be annoying, it works beautifully. And, yes, his translators deserve (and have earned) awards. The two books I read were translated by two different people, and both were excellent. His current translator, Margaret Jull Costa, makes some interesting remarks about translating his work at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/content/1/c4/79/74/jullcosta.pdf. (And she talks about All the Names, which is now on my Saramago TBR list, along with Seeing, The Cave, and the Gospel According to Jesus Christ.)

  4. Steph says:

    I read this one near the end of last year, and completely agree with everything you said in your review. It really doesn’t seem like this one should grab the reader so completely, and yet I really adored reading it and was never bored with it. I also felt like Saramago achieved a lot of wonderful moments in his writing; moments where I paused to let the meanings of his text fully penetrate my brain. It was my first Saramago, but definitely won’t be my last! I fully get why he was awarded the Nobel prize.

  5. Jenny says:

    Annabel — Blindness is on *my* wishlist, so I think we’re trading!

    Anna — let me know what you think when you read it.

    Teresa — thank you so much for the link about Margaret Jull Costa. Her work translating All the Names was simply amazing. I haven’t encountered anything like it since reading the Pevear/ Volokhonsky translation of The Master and Margarita.

    Steph — it sounds as if you and I had a very similar experience; I, too, paused often to let the words sink in, or to reread a passage. I look forward to more!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Oh, I absolutely adore this book. However, I had a difficult time keeping an interest in Blindness and ended up not finishing. Maybe I’ll go back to it soon.

  7. Jenny says:

    Elizabeth — Blindness is on my list as well. I look forward to hearing about your experience with it when you finish it.

  8. Hi Jenny, I have read All the Names now and here I am back as promised. I am happy to say that I loved the book and gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars. For those of you who read Dutch (if any): my review is at http://annavangelderen.blogspot.com/2009/04/jose-saramago-all-names-portugal-1997.html

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