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all the names

11 January 2006

All the Names (1997) by José Saramago is a modestly-sized fictional exploration of the force that draws or drives one person to another. It might be love, Senhor José thinks at one point, though it looks uncomfortably like stalking, as love sometimes does.

Senhor José is a fiftyish clerk in the Central Registry, the awful bureaucracy that records births, marriages, divorces, and deaths – and seems to fill no other function. His hobby is celebrity scrapbooking. He innocently borrows famous people's files from the vast archives of the Registry to help him complete his scrapbooks. One day, he removes an obscure person's file by accident. She's a 36-year-old woman, once married, once divorced. Senhor José spends the rest of the novel looking for her.

As several people tell him, he could find her quite easily in the phone book. But he doesn't take that route at first, or other practical steps later. (And he doesn't look her up on the Web, because even though the novel was first published in 1997, Senhor José lives in a stylized world of pen-and-paper record-keeping.) Instead he discovers that she went to a certain school in her childhood, and he breaks into the school, staying there overnight, to steal the files that the school has kept in its archives.

A creature of filing systems, Senhor José can only imagine reaching out to someone else by means of a filing system. His quest leads him through several labyrinths. He is breaking all the rules of his bureaucracy, but somehow the imposing, sarcastic Registrar lets him get away with terrible infractions. Senhor José's work will, in fact, lead to a great if enigmatic paradigm shift in the Registry itself.

Like Saramago's great novel Blindness (1995), All the Names exists in a world stylized to the point of abstraction. It's the place of fable, but Saramago's characters are never fabulous. They are real people faced with very real emotions and needs, who exist in a two-dimensional, black-and-white space. But they skin their knees, get drenched in the rain, drink tea, and herd real sheep through fantastic cemeteries.

All the Names is a novel of ideas, full of philosophical exchanges between Senhor José and, most often, his ceiling. But it is the kind of novel of ideas that Nabokov would have liked: utterly a-topical, humorous, obsessive, capable of stripping away non-essential details about its people without stripping them at any point of their irritable, intense human nature.

Saramago, José. All the Names. (Todos os nomes, 1997.) Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. New York: Harcourt, 1999.