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“Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things” #saramago #spanishlitmonth

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All the Names by Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Why is it that reading Jose Saramago emotionally wrecks me?? I first encountered him back in 2018, when I read and raved about his “Death at Intervals“; I absolutely adored it, and the ending so floored me that I had to sit down and do some deep breathing… In fact, I may have gone back and re-read it several times! Since then, I’ve amassed several of his books but haven’t yet picked another up; I think possibly I was a little scared in case it didn’t live up to “Death…” However, I was impelled to pick up a copy of “All the Names” fairly recently when I read about it somewhere online; and I wish I could remember where, but anyway, it really sounded like it might have the same effect on me. And when Stu said that special dispensation could be given to reading Saramago during Spanish Lit Month, despite the fact he wrote in Portugese, this was definitely the book I was going to pick up!

Saramago was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and “All the Names” was his thirteenth novel, first published in 1997. It’s set in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths of an unspecified city; the Registry is a heirarchical, old fashioned establishment with, it’s impossible not to say, very Kafkaesque (or possibly Gormenghastian) features. Holding the archive of records for the city stretching back endlessly into the past, it’s run on a rigidly ordered structure, with status cascading down from the all powerful Registrar through the different strata of clerks. This kind of bureacracy will be quite familiar to anyone who’s worked in offices or government departments, I’m sure…

There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe…

Our protagonist is one Senhor José, a lowly general clerk on the bottom rung of the ladder; aged around 50 and timid, he’s also the only remaining clerk to live in a hovel attached to the Registry, the last one of a whole set where clerks used to live. His life is existence in the most basic sense, governed by the rules and regulations of the registry to whom he gives his all; and his only hobby is secretly collecting data on famous people. As Senhor José’s home is attached to the Registry and has the only other entrance to it, he’s able to sneak in after hours to collect the data cards on the celebrities. But one night, by pure chance, he picks up an extra record card with the bundle of celebrities, that of an unknown woman. This simple action sends his life off track, as he decides to investigate and track down the woman from the meagre information the Registry holds; and the investigation will cause our poor timid clerk to go off in some very odd directions!

That simple description belies the complexity and sheer genius of “All the Names”, which is just as frankly brilliant as “Death at Intervals”. Saramago’s unique, ostensibly meandering, sinuous sentence structure is well to the fore, and he does, of course, do without most conventional punctuation. I don’t find this makes him at all difficult to read; on the contrary, I think the way he writes has much to do with the impact of his stories, as the cumulative effect of the narrative building up means that his endings are quietly devastating. I also find it a joy to read.

… a cloud that passes without leaving behind it any trace…

Then there’s his description, and the way he builds up the world in which his story takes place. Here, much is obviously set in the vast labyrinthine structure of the Registry, which is wonderfully conjured and almost a character in its own right. The records are divided into two parts, and of course the section for the dead *will* keep increasing; hence the back wall is constantly having to be demolished (so that the area can be extended) and then rebuilt. This has resulted in a maze-like setting of old papers which is so warren-like that no archivist sets out to explore it without an Ariadne’s thread in the form of a ball of string attached to the ankle so they can find their way back… The regulations are strict, often petty, and work is done with pen and ink, despite progress.

Intriguingly, as we follow Senhor José on his investigations, we see more of the city. He tries to build up a picture of the women, visiting her godmother, breaking into her old school (and having to explore more dusty archives!) and eventually discovering that the Registry has a twin in the city – the Cemetery, which is subject to similar hierarchies to the Registry, and also struggles with a similar problem of expansion, so that its walls have simply been removed and it spreads where it needs to. Here, Senhor José will encounter the physical records of the dead as well as encountering a very singular shepherd in the morning mist and what are probably metaphorical sheep!

It has long been known that death, either through innate incompetence or duplicity acquired through experience, does not choose its victims according to length of life, a fact which, moreover, let it be said in passing, and if one is to believe the words of the innumerable philosophical and religious authorities who have pronounced on the subject, has, indirectly and by different and sometimes contradictory routes, had a paradoxical effect on human beings, and has produced in them an intellectual sublimation of their very natural fear of dying.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens in the book, because I’ve found that much the joy of reading Saramago comes from having no idea where he will take you, or how he’ll end his story – both of the books I’ve read have had unexpected conclusions which took my breath away. And yet, once you’ve got there, the ending is the right one, and the only possible one.

... the one certainty we have, that we were, are and will be dust, and that we will be lost in another night as dark as that first night.

“All the Names” is, of course, very allegorical; and like “Death…” is more that just an entertaining tale. The whole concept of naming things is very human, and in fact is often equated with an act of creation. It’s also a way of humanising and therefore personalising people, things, places; and remembering names of those missing or lost under totalitarian regimes is a powerful way of keeping them alive in our memories. This, of course, gives the Registry considerable power; and presiding over the various clerks is the unusual and compelling figure of the current Registrar. He’s an intriging figure in his own right; about as far away and out of reach of Senhor José as you would think is possible, nevertheless at points in the book he breaks protocol and addresses our hero directly. It seems he may have an unexpected effect on events. It’s worth noting, too, that name-wise, Senhor José is the only character in the book to have one. Everyone else either has a title, such as the Registrar, or a description, like the lady in the ground-floor apartment, which certainly serves to give our José prominence!

Jose Saramago c. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Once more, I was completely seduced by Saramago’s writing, and I think I’ll have a book hangover for ages now. “All the Names” is such a multilayered book, one with so many hidden depths and which I think is really not about what it initially seems to be. Why *should* a meek clerk develop such an obsession with a woman he’s never seen? One character calls it love, and certainly that emotion seemed me to be at the heart of “Death at Intervals”, much as it is here. I love Saramago’s way of building in deeper issues in a quirky way; for example, in the sections where Senhor José has philosophical conversations with his ceiling! It’s one of those books which you could spend so much time on, trying to pick up every little nuance and reference (now there’s a retirement project for me); but briefly it seemed to me to be an entertaining yet profound exploration of the boundaries between the living and the dead (which become blurred not only in the Registry but also in the Cemetery…) “All the Names” was the perfect read for Spanish Lit Month, and I’m so glad Stu decided to allow Portugese books, because I loved this and it will join “Death at Intervals” on my desert island books list! 😀

Coming up in August – Women, Spain and Viragos! #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust #SpanishLitMonth

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August is a busy time for reading challenges and events, and although I generally fight shy of these nowadays (as I mentioned in my post on Reading Challenges and Me), there are three that fall during this coming month in which I do like to take part. These are Women In Translation month, All Virago/All August and Spanish Lit Month (which seems to run for two months nowadays…); and of course these are all great excuses to grab books off the shelf and make lists and piles of books!

First up, Women in Translation; this event was started in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, with the aim of celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. It’s a wonderful and laudable event, in which I always try to take part; and frankly, with the amount of translated women on my TBR there’s plenty of choice. I have specifically not bought anything new for this challenge, but a quick cast around for what I have unread and easily locatable revealed this large pile:

That’s a substantial selection of works; many from the Russian and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; and any would be fascinating right now. I’m particularly keen on getting to the Copenhagen Trilogy or a Petrushevskaya, but who knows? There is one book missing from these stacks which I’ve already read for #WITmonth – look out for my review tomorrow! And there was a late arrival on the scene when I succumbed to a purchase from the Folio Society summer sale – a new purchase yes, but not specifically for #WITmonth:

I wasn’t the only blogger who couldn’t resist this beautiful collection of Akhmatova’s poems… ;D

Next up is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog; he’s a stalwart of translated lit and an inspiration in how widely he reads. This is the pile of potentials I came up with:

A more modest pile, which contains works translated from the Spanish, Galician and Portugese. I had a minor panic at one point because, although Stu usually allows Portugese language books, I wasn’t sure if that was happening this year. Apparently it is, which is a great relief as if nothing else, there’s a Saramago I’m dying to read!

And finally All Virago/All August. This is an annual event on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; I never stick to reading only Viragos for a month but I try to read at least one (and Persephones are allowed too). In contrast to the above stacks, I currently have just one contender:

I read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, on Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds marvellous and I hope this will be the month I get to it!

So – sort-of plans for August, but what I actually stick to and read remains to be seen. I guess if I read one from each category I shall be happy with that achievement. Are you joining in with any of these reading events? 😀

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