By Jose Saramago
(Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Cost)
In an interview given to the Paris Review 18 months before he won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago noted that “literature increases the world’s population. We do not think [of renowned fictional characters] as beings who do not exist, as mere constructions of words on a series of sheets of paper that we call books. We think of them as real people.”
With his latest novel, All the Names, Saramago has populated the world anew with Señor Jose, a lowly, 50-year-old clerk who’s living out his lonely existence in the Central Registry, where all births and deaths are recorded, with a rigid division maintained between the two sets of files. Señor Jose has covertly taken up the task of compiling the records of the most famous people when he accidentally picks up the birth record of an unknown 36-year-old divorcee. He realizes that although “He had a cupboard full of men and women about whom the newspapers wrote almost every day, on the table was the birth certificate of an unknown person, and it was as if he had placed them both in the pans of a scale, a hundred on the anonymous side, one on the other, and was surprised to discover that all of them together weighed no more than this one, that one hundred equaled one, that one was worth as much as a hundred.”
And so the story of Señor Jose is launched, his desire to get to know this 36-year-old anonymous woman becoming an obsession that causes him to overthrow all the cautions and fears that have previously governed his life, including crossing the line into surreptitious criminal activity at work and in the community where he and she live. His obsession quickly becomes the reader’s, as Saramago tells the story solely from Señor Jose’s perspective, the sentences constructed in a stream-of-consciousness style, the thoughts, experiences, fantasies and emotions building with the intensity of hurtling through the most vivid dream, from the first page to the last.
From dialogues with the ceiling of the hovel in which he lives to interior monologues that seamlessly transmute into actual conversations, Señor Jose’s quest again and again reveals the ever-shifting, ever-mysterious boundary between consciousness and experience.
“The world doesn’t make sense,” Señor Jose acknowledges near the novel’s end, and the novelist demonstrates in ways both cruel and humorous the fundamental fallacy of our belief in human rationality. Señor Jose is to learn that however much we may want to get to know someone, it is impossible even to know ourselves, except perhaps that we are born and that we die; and perhaps the way in which we understand those two separate but conjoined realities is what is most important to the ways in which we lead our lives.
The novel has its obvious heritage in the desolate clerks living out their absurd existences in the St. Petersburg of Dostoyevsky or the Prague of Kafka. Like them, there is only the barest description of characters’ physiques, and in this case Señor Jose is the only character with a name. Also like his predecessors, even the simplest interaction by this simple man is fraught with metaphysical terror and awe. But this novel is not simply a derivative artifact, but instead an impassioned engagement with human existence by a novelist who, while pleading the case for our common humanity, conveys his own unique voice and vision.
For Saramago, the confounding, continually querulous qualities of life are mirrored in the infinite connotations of language that “cannot stay still, it seethes with second, third and fourth senses, radiating out in different directions that divide and subdivide into branches and branchlets, until they disappear from view, the sense of every word is like a star hurling spring tides out into space, cosmic winds, magnetic perturbations, afflictions.” With Saramago, they are afflictions that the reader gladly endures.