Thanks to the wonderful resident gringos of Sucre, and to their personal libraries, I’ve somehow managed – in a city where the bookstores only sell stationery and in which the only people who read in the plazas or the cafes or on buses are foreigners – to keep myself entrenched in the realm of the highbrow and the literary. I’ve even been able to choose the direction my readings have taken, which is how I have returned to the world of Jose Saramago.
Please note, I’m about to completely spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t read this book.
All the Names bears a number of similarities to The Double, which I’ve already blogged about. Both narratives see a very bored and single man becoming fixated on the search for another person whom he has never met. Both men delve into phone books and other types of catalogues, though in The Double the catalogue is a video store, while in All the Names it is – among other places – a cemetery.
All the Namesis a meditation on death and memory. At the centre of the novel is the question of what we do with the dead, and of where we go when we die. Saramago’s approach is humanist, though; there is no suggestion of afterlives here. At the most basic level, when we die we go to the cemetery and become a grave, and we go into the Central Registry and become a death certificate.
The protagonist, Senhor Jose, works in the Central Registry, where the all the names of the living are separated from those of the dead by an archaic filing system. Every life and every name is, in the Central Registry, reduced to dates of birth, marriage, divorce and death, and to the names of spouses and direct family. It is a reductive way of remembering the dead. It is also a way of forgetting them, of shelving them away in the dust and gloom of the registry.
Senhor Jose spends almost the entire novel searching for a woman he will never meet. In doing so he is trying to give detail to her life, to make it more than just the recorded dates of birth, death, etc. This is no easy task; the woman disappears and leaves few clues about her life or death. Before he reaches the end of his quest Senhor Jose knows he is approaching an impassable wall, a cul-de-sac which is the obscurity death casts over life.
A building sense of melancholy hangs over the narrative; Saramago is not seeking to cheat the simple, hard facts of death and of the cemetery and the registry. As a result the book is poignantly, hauntingly sad at times, and leaves an unnerving sense of loss which brought itching tears to my eyes. This is as much because of the loneliness that Senhor Jose never escapes as because of his musings on death.
Still, with Senhor Jose’s quest, Saramago depicts some of the small, dedicated efforts we make to ensure that we keep the dead in more than just the catalogues of cemetery and registry. A concern of the book is the keeping or intrusion of the dead among the living. The walls of the registry and cemetery are continually knocked down and expanded to make room for and contain all of the dead. Eventually the cemetery grows too big for walls, and the graves of the dead begin to overlap with the land of living.
The final act of Senhor Jose, aided by the authoritarian Registrar who provides a wonderful sub-plot, is to de-register the death of the woman, to destroy any recorded signs of her death, to place her file back amongst the living. It is a gesture that changes nothing, but which is about as much as can be done to give dignity to the dead, to ensure they never become just file and headstone. Even human memory is fickle, Saramago notes; there is much about a person that is irretrievably lost when they die; the the cul-de-sac that we, like Senhor Jose, arrive at in our remembering.
This is a sad book for one as vivacious as Saramago. He does nothing to try to evade or deny the cold inevitability of death, but his idea that the names of the dead belong alongside the names of the living, and not off in the dark repositories where lives are diminished and then forgotten has a sweet note to it. Life and death are, after all, close companions that one way or another belong side by side.