I’ve long intended to read Saramago, and by a curious chance I came across mention of his book “All the Names” (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) somewhere on the internet. I was having a difficult day; I performed various necessary tasks, trying to put the book out of my mind. But the description of the book on the internet was too compelling. So last evening I made my way to that temple of words and worlds, the public library, and returned triumphantly bearing the book in question. I sat down to read it yesterday evening, intending to get a taste of it and then set it aside for other things. Instead I read the whole thing in one sitting.
It is a slight book, physically speaking. The story, at first sight, may seem slight as well, given weight only by eccentricity of concept. Senhor Jose’ is a middle-aged bachelor, a clerk in the unnamed city’s Central registry. Alone in the world, his sole interest outside work is to collect clippings of famous people. A chance mistake leads him to the birth certificate of an ordinary woman, a stranger. Like a thread that has come loose from a great weave, this small record of an unimportant life among millions of similar lives is something he feels compelled to follow, to unravel. His journey across the city in search of this woman is paralleled by his secret nocturnal trips into the labyrinth of the Central Registry after dark. Appearing in his life from moment to moment are other people who are part of the unknown woman’s story. The enigmatic figure of the Registrar hovers in the background. The story sounds Kafkaesque but I don’t think it is, despite superficial resemblances.
The idea of the thread that is unraveled, or the thread that must be followed to lead the way into the darkness, is written into both form and content. The story confounds the usual rules and conventions of the novel – sentences go on and on, conversations are not separated by quotation marks, and there is no attempt to ‘hook’ the reader with sex, or violence, or even an irresistible first sentence. Yet I found I could not put the book down. It begins prosaically enough, with a description of the Central Registry of Births and Deaths, but each sentence is a thread leading into the darkness. Ariadne’s thread, which was given to Theseus in the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth, is explicitly mentioned in the book, and in fact employed by Senhor Jose’ when he must venture into the darkness of the section where records of death are kept. This is a book about loneliness and love, and compassion, and the tenuous, yet undeniable connections between strangers. It is heart-rending in a very quiet way, taking one’s own defences apart fibre by fibre during the act of reading. I found my tea grown cold, the hour advanced to nearly midnight, and the stereo had long since stopped playing. Today my day was filled with small reverberations, little aftershocks and resonances from the story that I cannot quite explain or articulate.