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All the Names Paperback – October 5, 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (October 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156010593
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156010597
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #115,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 23, 2001
Format: Hardcover
José Saramago is a genius wordsmith. To the novice opening a first book by this Nobel Prize winning Portuguese novelist, Saramago may seem a bit mad, if not just frustratingly bizarre. Pages without paragraph indentations, with conversations unpunctuated or without speaker identified, no use of quotation maeks, abrupt changes of time and place within one ongoing endless sentence. These impediments to reading a novel often tend to make the reader begin to simply scan the way through the book, hoping to find the end to this strange means. BUT! It is precisely the "means" that places Saramago in the category of Greatest Living Writers. (More than a little praise is due his able translator!!) "All the Names" is a journey of obsession by a Kafaesque little nobody who works in a metaphorical General Registry that houses all the names of those born, married, and died in an unknown land/place. Saramago pulls us like a powerful magnet into this meticulously ordered conundrum and we are walking beside (and sharing the inner side of the skull of) a little clerk determined to place an identity of one unknown woman. This is at once a journey through Existentialism, through the anonymity of living in the world today, a study of the depersonalization of society. Yet out of this microscopic examination of details we come to understand the significance of maintaining individualism, of finding connection, of fighting against a meaningless passage on this earth. Though no one is named in this novel, save the main character, Saramago paints the peripheral characters with such clarity that names are the least important designators. This is not an easy read: many great books are not easy reads.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a wonder. Saramago once again takes us into an incredible world. This time the life of Sr. Jose, a low level employee at the National Registry. We should assume that the location is Lisbon, however, it is not clear. Nevertheless, his descriptions of the city are wonderful, and reminds us of the same descriptions from "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis." At times you feel that one is walking the streets of the city with Sr. Jose.
The most fascinating aspect of this book is the in-depth psychological descriptions of Sr. Jose's thinking. It felt like I actually could read is mind. It is exquisite writing, which makes for incredible reading.
The book can also be read as an incredible and fanstastic mystery. Additionally, and like most of Saramago's books, the political criticism is also present. One could read the book as a criticism to oppressive governments. Sr. Jose, representing the oppressed people and the Chief of the National Registry representing the dictator.
This book makes for a salivating and delicious reading. I highly recommend it. Enjoy!
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Format: Hardcover
If he had never won the Nobel Prize, I would never have heard of Jose Saramago. I have read all of his novels and am captivated by his elegant and beautiful writing. It was with a mixture of hopeful anticipation and dread that I read this book: could it possibly measure up to my favorites Blindness and Baltisar and Blimunda. Well I need not have worried, Saramago drew me into his labyrinth from the first sentence. I was reminded of Kafka and Dante's Inferno when reading this story of a lonely public official Senhor Jose who is isolated by istitutions and his work. He represents all of modern humanity in it's struggle to survive emotionally. The book tells of Senhor Jose's attempt to find connections to other human beings, of having to fight all of the barriers erected by modern life. He is the "everyman" of the Twentieth Century. The glimpses of love that he finds during his obsessive quest is enough to transform him into another person. Read the book very slowly to savor the taste of Saramago's prose. He will be remembered as a great writer in distant times.
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Format: Hardcover
Saramago's in depth, tender and frequently humorous exploration of the life of a simple, timid clerk (Senhor Jose) unfolds into a story of a man's quest to overcome the fears that have all but smothered him. "Senhor Jose both wants and doesn't want, he both desires and fears what he desires, that is what his whole life has been like," Saramago tells us. Other than his "hobby," collecting information about famous people, Senhor Jose's life is mostly about being as uninvolved as possible.
In contrast to the main character in Saramago's earlier "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis," who is dead but doesn't know it, Senhor Jose is alive but doesn't know it. And unlike his earlier works in which fate seems to hold all the cards, in "All the Names" Saramago lets chance (serendipity) guide the story. It begins, almost as a reward for a tiny bit of daring, when Senhor Jose sneaks into his work place to get some more information about famous people for his collection and discovers, stuck to one of the records he was looking for, a misfiled record for a woman (another un-famous, unknown). Unbeknownst to him at the time, it will be the question posed by this simple piece of paper (Who is she?) that brings Senhor Jose "back from the dead." Skillfully, Saramago uses the same question to draw in his readers, and it is some time before he begins to let on that maybe this "unknown woman" is more important as a metaphor for what has become of Senhor Jose's spirit - his willingness to engage in life - than as some real woman he will eventually find. In the end, it is the search itself that eventually leads Senhor Jose to discover that what makes life worth living is never so dead that it can't be resurrected.
There is a shift in "quality" (character) between this book and Saramago's earlier ones.
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