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All The Names by Jose Saramago

Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He is 93. His books are translated from Portuguese.

All The Names is the story of a middle-aged civil servant named Senhor Jose, who works as a clerk in the Central Registry for births, marriages and deaths. He is the only person named in the story–all the remaining characters in the novel are referred to by their titles or descriptions: The Registrar, the woman in the apartment, and so on. It is an interesting literary device, given the title of the book. One can read the entire length of novel before realizing this fact.

Senhor Jose, still a bachelor in his 50s, lives a quiet life. He has no social life, or family to visit. He has only his work and the hierchichal structure and discipline of the institution does not allow for personal exchanges of any kind. He has spent a lifetime alongside co-workers that know nothing significant about him.

It is not surprising that in order to maintain a connection with humanity, he clips articles out of newspapers and magazines and keeps his own personal registry of stranger’s lives. He secretly cross-checks his files with those of the official labyrinth files at the Central Registry. One day the filing card of “an unknown woman” sticks to the other files he has surreptitiously borrowed for his hobby.

The file of the unknown woman begins to haunt his life. He steps out of his lonely existence to try to track her down. He becomes a sleuth and a forger and much more. The tension through the novel builds as we begin to learn more about the unknown woman and this tension exhibits itself in Senhor Jose, who comes under the suspicion of his boss.

The remainder of the novel takes on a Proustian stream-of-consciousness internal monologue with the reader drifting in a sort of middle-world haze of metaphor and allegory that is the most beautiful consequence of this novel. It has been compared to a Kafkaesque experience.

saramagoWhen Jose Saramago was born in Azinhaga, in the province of Ribatejo he was named according to his parents Jose de Sousa and Maria da Piedade. But the local registrar knew the family well and wrote down on the form as his surname the nickname by which his family was known by in the village, “Saramago”. It is a wild herbacious plant eaten by the poor villagers for nourishment. Not until Jose was seven and required to present official documents for elementary school did he realize the identity problem. The issue of identity is been a recurring theme in the author’s writing.

Saramago worked his way up from the peasant class as a good student, but finances dictated that he attend a technical school and become a mechanic. His love of language and books led him to the local library where he refined his taste in literature. He began working for the Social Service as an administrative assistant and eventually published his first novel.

At the end of the ’50s he took a publishing job which eventually evolved into the position of literary critic, and eventually as editor and director of the newspaper. A political military coup toppled the dictatorship, and the resulting unemployment allowed for time to write more books and poetry and his eventual notariety followed these eight books.

Here are links to more information on Jose Saramago, but to know this author best you must read his novels, as each represents a chapter in his life through elegant enchanting prose.

Our group enjoyed reading and discussing him. There is a distinctness in his style and a refreshingly “otherness” about his work. The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is exquisitely executed with many passages closer to poetry than prose.

Saramago lives in the Canary Islands.

Things to discuss:

  • The mythological references: pg6 Methuselah, pg37 Ariadne’s Thread
  • The significance of the registry’s hierarchy of authority with reflection on society itself and the bureaucracies working within.
  • The perils of the labyrinth of the Registry and the metaphor of how the living and the dead are divided/included.
  • The question of destiny.
  • The significance and interpretation of the cemetary scene and the dreams in the novel.
  • The way in which Senhor Jose changes, along with his relationship to the Registrar and why these transformations occur?