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José Saramago: Todos os nomes (All the Names)

One of Saramago’s techniques is to take the story of a perfectly ordinary person and have him (it is usually, though not always, a male) do something which is contrary both to his character and what he has done with the previous part of his life. História do cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon) is an obvious example. This is what happens here. The man in question is Senhor José. We (and, apparently, everyone else) only know him by that name, with no surname. Indeed, he is fortunate to have a name as he is the only character in the book to do so. Senhor José is a fifty-one year old, single man, who works for the Central Registry in an unnamed country. The Central Registry is the registry for births, marriages and deaths and consists of clerks who fill in and file the records. Everything is done on official forms in longhand. There is a mention of using typewriters and more advanced technologies but these have been rejected, as the traditional methods have always been used and there seems to reason no change (though we do learn some possible and obvious reasons, such as loss of data). Everyone works in a huge building. As the records are expanding, every so often the building has to be extended, which involves the rear wall being torn down, the building extended and a new rear wall being built. Again there is some complaint about this – why no-long-term planning and why no windows in the rear wall. The building is dark and it is difficult to find one’s way around the files. Indeed, an independent researcher gets lost in the labyrinthine corridors for a week and nearly dies.

Work is very routine, involving filling out the forms and filing them and assisting members of the public who need information. There is a rigid hierarchy, with a registrar in charge, then deputies, senior clerks and clerks. Everyone has to arrive on time, which means, apart from the deputy who opens the door, in reverse order of seniority. In the past, there was a series of houses backing onto the registry for clerks to live in, with direct access to the main building. Now, there is only one left and it is Senhor José who lives there. While there is a door directly into the main building, he is expressly forbidden from using it and has to walk all the way round to the front door and go in there with the other staff. Senhor José lives on his own and seems to have no friends, no romantic liaisons and no relatives with whom he is in close contact. Outside his work, his only interest seems to be collecting newspaper and magazine clippings of celebrities. We are told that, as he lives in a small country, there are not a great deal of celebrities. His main collection consists of the top one hundred and includes people from all walks of life – a bishop is specifically mentioned, for example. He does have a second hundred but they are lesser celebrities. But he realises that while he may know what he reads in the papers about them, he knows little about their antecedents. Were they really born in the capital or actually born in that grubby little village? And, of course, he realises that he has this information to hand in the registry. So, at night, he takes his torch, digs out the records of the celebrities, takes some of the official forms and fills in the details, which he stores in his cupboard and returns the cards that some night. He has soon filled out his top hundred and moves on to the second hundred. However, while picking up the cards of six celebrities, he inadvertently picks up a seventh card which had stuck to the card of the bishop. It is the card of an ordinary woman, aged thirty-four, married and divorced. He is determined to track her down.

The rest of the book is about Senhor José’s hunt for this woman which, despite the fact that she was born near to the Central Registry, is not straightforward. In particular, it gets him into a certain amount of difficulties at work and causes a varirty of other problems. Saramago tells us this story in his usual manner. Senhor José frequently talks to (and answers) himself or holds discussions with inanimate objects, such as his ceiling when lying in bed. He imagines all sorts of problems with his supervisors at the Registry or in his investigations, which do not come to pass. And, of course, the outcome is not as we (or Senhor José) expect.

It is another fine story by Saramago, though not his best by any means. He avoids some of the obvious traps, such as having the Central Registry as some kind of Kafkaesque place of employment or of using ideas from standard detective stories and sticks to his usual modus operandi to show us an ordinary life that goes somewhat off track.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 1999 by Harvill