All the Names by Jose Saramago
1997 (english translation 1999), 238 pp.
(Note: many of the quotes and summary points in this review will indeed be of a spoiler nature)
The overall incompleteness of book reviews is a daunting and foreboding anathema to reason. One is led to ask why would I want a only a summary of a book, why would I not rather indulge in the pleasure of reading a well crafted book and decide for myself whether it is good or bad? Perhaps one would venture to ask the reviewer why on earth are you writing 500 words at all; the author wrote thousands, what could you possibly add by way of a summary? It is my humble task to provide a definitive answer by showing how in fact Saramago’s “All the Names” is a work of extreme care, thoughtfulness, and sociological imagining that by doing so I hope to leave the reader of this review with a better understanding of certain aspects of society as Saramago sees them. Keeping this in mind, this review is ushered forth out of the Central Registry like the many papers that our protagonist Senhor José lifted from the archives, to copy down the lives of those he would never meet, and truly begin to enter his humanity documenting others. Within the spirit of the human unraveling and finding something to be passionate about after years buried under the paperwork and mind numbing bureaucracy of the Central Registry, we see that José Saramago has thought more deeply about more important issues of our time than fabricating a codex within a codex (heaven forbid the vinegar melt the horribly inept secret of the Rose!).
Any reader upon picking up a Saramago book will recognize the unorthodox style of his prose, to hell with grammar; he flings aside the conventions of writing and instead utilizes that of empirical reality. This use of grammar may be a problem for the professional critic of books, so use to the humdrum of a properly placed comma or period, that the slightest deviation from the way there 3rd grade teacher told them a paragraph should be constructed will send them into a spiral of “hard work” that will inhibit them from truly enjoying the brilliance from which comes a type of prose that reflects the way people actually think and talk. In a sentence that is actually rare in its brevity, the author could equally be talking about the professional critic, when he reveals that, “Imagining the head of the Central Registry doing overtime was rather like trying to imagine a square circle.” (156)
Robert Irwin, reviewer of this book for the NY Times tells us that there are hardly any names in “All the Names” (on this point there is no dispute only the protagonist and the woman eventually get names), his jaw presumably dropping at the cleverness of Saramago. However, for the sociologist this is hardly a twist of cleverness meriting the only analytical point a reviewer could make in addition to the summary. Indeed, Max Weber himself tells us of bureaucracy that it is a hierarchically structured inherently dehumanizing way of rationalizing an organization (indeed for Weber the best way thus far developed and thus intractable once put into place) whereby (increasingly) one person is the sole bearer of charismatic (read creative, innovative, entrepreneurial) authority and this Charismatic leader (indeed only him/her) can deviate from the mechanical rationality of the bureaucratic machine (otherwise nothing would get done as people would engage in petty disagreements like, “why should I put paper in the printer after its empty?”). Like Weber state’s names (the personal characteristics) are not important for bureaucracy, only your role and the work that you must complete; in this book the clerks answer to the higher clerks who answer to the second in commands before we reach the Registrar (Saramago utilizes the Capital letter to denote his authority). To get time off, to ask for a break, to do anything besides the work one is assigned this chain of command must be followed.
Irwin also states that this book is less human than “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis”. To this I would rebut what is more human than a low-level clerk in the near total bureaucracy of the Central Registry, going on a journey of intrigue and speculation, as for humanity “Senhor José felt a pang of pleasure, almost enthusiasm, at the exercise of inventive abilities he had never imagined he had…” (128). He then goes onto to play the role of private investigator (like Nicholson in Chinatown), digging up clue after clue compulsively about a mysterious woman (“You wanted to see her, you wanted to know her, and that, whether you like or not, is love”), worried about getting caught or besmirching the good name of the almighty Central Registry and eventually the Registrar himself who begins to treat José with increasing kindness as if he is an equal of the charismatic sort that would need to be at the top, not the low-level of the bureaucracy.
Saramago, moreso than any author I have read so far asks us to imagine the regular as spectacular. The ceiling (the thing above your head right now!) becomes a cliché spewing machine on page 132 and then on page 209 becomes a wise entity bestowing definitive answers about what to do next; indeed were it not for Saramago’s atheistic humor could we come to see the ceiling as “the eye of God”. Saramago utilizes the sociological imagination of C. Wright Mills (questioning the everyday object or social interaction to draw out its deeper sociological Facts and truths) when he writes, “For long hours he had walked through General Cemetery, he had passed through epochs, eras, dynasties, through kingdoms, empires and republics, through wars and epidemics, through infinite numbers of disparate deaths, beginning with the first sorrow felt by humanity and ending with this woman who committed suicide only a few days ago, Senhor José, therefore, knows all too well that there is nothing anyone can do about death.” (198)
Between the Central Registry and the General Cemetery the bureaucratizing of All the Names is complete and all those alive and dead are recorded, stored, and buried within the confines of an information card or hole in the ground. But as the woman on the ground floor apartment tells us, you know their names and years of birth, but you do not know that I her godmother slept with her father! You do not know how she laughs and how she cries! In a final stroke of genius Saramago continues the woman’s life by destroying the proof of her death. She becomes at once real, human; by becoming a deviation an aberration in the near perfect bureaucracy of the Central Registry (with the Registrar’s blessing no less). The dehumanization of bureaucracy is challenged and overcome, the strength of humanity is upheld, and Saramago “ties the end of the [Ariadne’s] thread around his ankle and set off into the darkness” to explore what humanity is capable of under even the most complete bureaucratic structuring of life.