Tuesday, April 14, 2009

All the Names

All the Name, by José Saramago
1997, 238 pp.

I have, regrettably, little to add to our comrade's March 22 review of this book. I will not try to compete with the spectres of Weber and C. Wright Mills he animates, nor do I have substantive points to dispute, but being in the position of having read several of Saramago's works by now, I hope I can contribute a bit by way of comparison and position.

All the Names is a smaller, more enclosed work than the other Saramago novels I've read. It is most obviously similar to The History of the Siege of Lisbon: both center on a quiet, unregarded, lonely, middle-aged man who works around the periphery of written words. In both books, this quiet little man commits an act of disobedience which opens up his previously cloistered world and allows him to discover his humanity. But while The History of the Siege of Lisbon has at its heart a beautiful romance, All the Names is concerned entirely with the process of recovering one's humanity from the alienation of labor and institutions. Robert Irwin over at the Times is quite incorrect when he suggests that it is "less human" than The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis: that book is much more interested in metaphysics and memory and parallels an individual becoming dislocated from the world and his own memories with an entire country doing the same thing, with destructive results for both. (Incidentally, Irwin also whines about Saramago's anti-punctuation "I have never understood why he wants his readers to have to work so hard," which suggests that perhaps the professional book reviewers for the New York Times need literary training wheels.)

The story concerns Senhor José, a minor clerk at the Central Registry, a vast warren which houses the birth, marriage, divorce, and death records of apparently everyone who has ever lived. The Kafka-esque parallel is almost too obvious to bear mentioning, but the real pedigree of this dusty image seems to me to owe much more to the beautiful, detailed stasis of Mervyn Laurence Peake. Much of the story follows Senhor José as he attempts to find one specific woman (referred to only as "the unknown woman,") and rebuild the human aspects of her life.

The prose is as riddled with authorial meditations as ever, sometimes in the form of dialogue between Senhor José and his apparently omniscient ceiling. There are very effective overtones of paranoia, and some actually quite persuasive passages of suspense. As ever, Saramago has an intense eye for the pain and depths of feeling in his minor characters, and seems to believe powerfully in the transformative capability of minor, everyday, secular miracles. But he is at his absolute best when writing about interpersonal romance: nobody writes about being in love like Saramago does. With that element missing, and only the intellectual ruminations on institutions, alienation, humanity, and memory left, All the Names is an example of what Saramago can do with his best hand tied behind his back. He still produced a splendid book, despite it missing most of the pieces by which we normally recognize a book. There is only one name, and that an intentionally nondescript one, no physical descriptions, few descriptions of places, little exposition, no romance, and the climax is (and is much more than) the adoption of a new filing system in a bureaucracy. Yet for all that it is a brilliant book about what it means to be human, full of thoughts and ideas and feelings. It leaves the reviewer with the conclusion that, like punctuation, Saramago is too good for the technical necessities of mere mortal novelists.

No comments: