"As soon as you cross the threshold, you notice the smell of old paper." The Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths is the setting for All the Names
, Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author José Saramago's seventh novel to be translated into English. The names in question are those of every man, woman, and child ever born, married, or buried in the unnamed city where the Registry is located, and are the special province of Senhor José who is employed there as a clerk. Over the centuries, the paper trail in this hopelessly arcane bureaucracy has grown so monumental, so disorganized that
one poor researcher became lost in the labyrinthine catacombs of the archive of the dead, having come to the Central Registry in order to carry out some genealogical research he had been commissioned to undertake. He was discovered, almost miraculously, after a week, starving, thirsty, exhausted, delirious, having survived thanks to the desperate measure of ingesting enormous quantities of old documents that neither lingered in the stomach nor nourished, since they melted in the mouth without requiring any chewing.
The nondescript Senhor José labors long and thanklessly among the archives; his is a tepid, lonely life with only one small hobby to leaven his leisure hours: he collects "news items about those people in his country who, for good reasons and bad, had become famous." One night, it occurs to him that "something fundamental was missing from his collection, that is, the origin, the root, the source, in other words, the actual birth certificate of these famous people"--and that the information is within easy reach on the other side of a connecting door that separates his meager lodgings from the Registry itself. And so begins Senhor José's midnight raids on the stacks as he shuttles between the Registry and his own room bearing precious records that he carefully copies before returning them to their rightful places. Still, this minor aberration might have remained the clerk's only transgression if not for a simple act of fate: one night, along with his celebrity records, he accidentally picks up a birth certificate belonging to an ordinary, unknown woman--a woman who becomes suddenly more important than all the others precisely because she is
unknown. Celebrity is cast aside as Senhor José begins a search for this mysterious quarry--a quest that will lead him into conflict with his superior, the Registrar, and ensnare him in the kind of messy personal histories and tangled relationships he has thus far avoided in his own life.
A recurring theme in many of Saramago's novels is the very human struggle between withdrawal and connection. Whether it is the Iberian peninsula literally breaking off from the rest of Europe in The Stone Raft or an entire country afflicted by a devastating malady in Blindness, he is fascinated by the effects of isolation on the human soul and, correspondingly, the redemptive power of compassion. All the Names continues to mine this rich vein as the repressed clerk follows his unknown Ariadne's thread out of the labyrinth of his own strangled psyche and into life. Readers will find here Saramago's trademark love of the absurd, his brilliant imagery and idiosyncratic punctuation, as well as the unflinching yet tender honesty with which he chronicles the human condition. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
The deceptive simplicity of Nobel Prize-winner Saramago's prose, and the ironic comments that he intersperses within this story of an obsessional quest, initially have a disarming effect; one expects that this low-key exploration of a quiet man's eccentric descent into a metaphysical labyrinth will be an extremely intelligent but unexciting read. Unexciting: wrong. Within the first few pages, Saramago establishes a tension that sings on the page, rises, produces stunning revelations and culminates when the final paragraph twists expectations once again. The title refers to the miles of archival records among which the protagonist toils at the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths in an unnamed small country whose inhabitants still live by ancient rules of hierarchical social classes. The registry is quixotically disorganized so that the files of those most recently deceased are buried under miles of paper at the furthest remove of the massive building. After more than two decades at the job, 50-year-old Senhor Jos is still a mere clerk in the bureau. A penurious, reclusive, lonely bachelor, Senhor Jos has only one secret passion: he collects clippings about famous people and surreptitiously copies their birth certificates, purloining them from the registry at night and returning them stealthily. Purely by accident, the index card of a 36-year-old woman unknown to him becomes entangled in the clippings he steals. Suddenly, he is stricken by a need to learn about this woman's life. Consumed by passion, this heretofore model of punctilious behavior commits a series of dangerous and unprofessional acts. He forges official papers, breaks into a building, removes records from institutions and continues to enter the registry after darkDall punishable offenses. To carry out his mission, he is forced to become practical, clever and brave. But the more risks he takes, the more astonishing events occur, chief among them that the remote, authoritarian Registrar takes a personal interest in his lowly employee. Meanwhile, Senhor Jos himself discovers shocking facts about the woman he seeks. Saramago relates these events in finely honed prose pervaded with irony, but also playful, mocking and witty. Alternately farcical, macabre, surreal and tragic, this mesmerizing narrative depicts the loneliness of individual lives and the universal need for human connection even as it illuminates the fine line between the living and the dead. First serial to Grand Street, the Reading Room and Doubletake; QPB and Reader's Subscription Club selection; author tour. (Oct.)
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