All the Names by José Saramago

A tantalizing novel about boredom, curiosity and memory

The cover design of All the Names shows a man standing in a street flanked by tall buildings. He is wearing an ill-fitting suit and a hat, facing away from the viewer with his hands clasped behind his back. The scene is misty and at first you don’t notice he is standing not on the ground but above it – perhaps reminiscent of a Magritte painting. And indeed there is something surreal about the adventures, if we can call them that, of the book’s protagonist, Senhor José. José is about 50 years old and has spent all his working life as a clerk, the lowest rank, in the Central Registry – a perpetually expanding bureaucratic organisation that stores the labyrinthine records of the living and the dead, presided over by the despotic Registrar. Jose, a somewhat timid figure, surprisingly begins to break the rules of his employment, risking disgrace and ruin in a bizarre quest to find out information about the life of an unknown woman. On his journey he meets other characters, all unnamed – the elderly woman in the ground floor flat, the doctor, the shepherd, the headmaster, even the ceiling, which, having a god-like view of the proceedings, adds a wry commentary on the goings-on below.

Saramago’s elegant prose has a mesmeric quality, flowing along in lengthy paragraphs, much of it in dialogue and with minimal punctuation. The story lends itself to all sorts of allegorical interpretations so it’s impossible to say what it’s about – perhaps simply human loneliness, and the universal need for connection. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by a Library member