José Saramago was born to a family of poor landless peasants in the small village of Azinhaga, Portugal, a hundred kilometres north-east of Lisbon, in 1922. Two years later, his parents moved to Lisbon, where the father worked as a policeman.
Saramago attended primary school followed by grammar school, where he stayed for two years only. Due to his parents’ lack of means he was then sent to a technical school for five years to train to become a mechanic. In those days the curriculum, aside mechanics, also included French and literature, which was unusual for such schools and to his advantage.
After finishing technical school, Saramago worked for two years as a mechanic in a car repair shop, while in the evening often visiting the Lisbon public library, eager to learn and enrich his education. Later he worked as a civil servant in the administration of the Social Welfare Service.
In 1947 he published his first novel: Land Of Sin. He then worked in a metal company followed by a publishing enterprise and in his free time translated works by French authors as well as becoming a literary critic. He worked for two years at the evening newspaper, Diario de Lisboa, as a manager of a cultural supplement and as an editor. For a few months he was also deputy director at the morning paper, Diario de Noticias. He joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969.
After a period of unemployment and due to the unsettled political situation in Portugal in the seventies, Saramago decided to become a full-time writer when in his late fifties. He wrote several volumes of essays and short stories as well as poetry, plays and autobiographical works. He received awards and accolades and in 1998 obtained the Nobel Prize for Literature. José Saramago did not receive international acclaim until he was in his sixties. He died after a long illness in June 2010 aged 87.
All The Names, which was published in Portuguese in 1997 and English in 1999, is the story of the fifty-year-old, reserved, submissive, assiduous, dull and lonely bachelor, Senhor José. He is the novel’s only protagonist and he alone bears a name.
The story has several peripheral, nameless characters who are referred to by their job position or their function in life – such as the senior and deputy clerks, the Registrar, the doctor, or the unknown woman, the kind old lady living in the ground-floor apartment, the parents of the unknown woman, the shepherd and his flock of sheep and others.
Senhor José, a man of modest means, is a junior civil clerk working at the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths. His work consists of updating and preserving the archives of the living and the dead. Saramago does not specify where the story is set but most probably it is Lisbon.
Senhor José’s secret hobby is collecting newspapers and magazine cuttings “containing news and photos of famous people” from his own country “purely because they are famous”. He thought that if he was worth the same as even one of the people in his collection or “any one of the five less-famous people, he would never have started his collection”.
Senhor José lives in a small, spartan apartment adjoining the Central Office building with a communicating door in between, for which he holds the key, but is not supposed to use it. At night, when all his colleagues have gone home, he sneaks into the central registry office to borrow five cards from the celebrities’ registry files. He needs to add the extra details he is lacking in order to complete his card file before returning them, neither seen, nor heard.
One day, the index card of an unknown thirty-six-year-old woman, born in his very city, is stuck to the card in front. This sixth card retains his attention because it didn’t belong to a famous person. Intrigued by his discovery, he undertakes a quest to recover the woman’s identity. As his research progresses, he becomes more obsessed by this mysterious unknown woman much more than he ever was with any of the celebrities.
In his novel, the author depicts the bureaucracy, the outdated archiving system, as well as the strict personnel hierarchical regulation in the governmental offices where Senhor José works. Also in the General Cemetery, where he needs to go from time to time “to check certain data, clarify discrepancies, compare facts, or clear up differences”.
“The General Cemetery’s unwritten motto is: All the Names, although it should be said that, in fact, these three words fit the Central Registry like a glove, because it is there that all the names are to be found, those of the dead and those of the living”.
All The Names is a sad, moving novel. A surreal and macabre story of a man who, out of boredom and loneliness, makes his only task in life finding everything about a completely unknown woman, totally stranger to him, that he has no intention of ever meeting. He becomes spellbound by this woman to the extent of visiting the apartment where she was born, visiting the school she attended as a student as well as a teacher and stealing her photographs. He goes to the extent of visiting her grave and spending the night in the graveyard, when he finds out that she has died. The most surprising thing is when the reader discovers that Senhor José considers his research an exciting, fulfilling experience, being, for him, an end in itself.
Saramago’s style of writing is uncommonly special, not to say confusing, with never-ending paragraphs, sometimes going on for pages. He uses full stops sparingly and sometimes substitutes them with comas. One is never sure when the narrator’s voice ends and the other character starts. There are no quotation marks and no referring to “he/she said” but only a comma and a capital letter to indicate a beginning of a person’s speech in a dialogue.
The author’s persistence in using nameless characters in the novel is intentional. Even the name, José, chosen for his main character, is a very commonly used first name in Portugal. In his novel, Saramago is establishing the similitude between the living and the dead – they both exist on numbered filed cards in a governmental office and in the General Cemetery’s office and they are also all equal in death.
This is all made clear when Senhor José discovers that the shepherd he fortuitously meets on the cemetery grounds, is swapping the numbers on the graves for fun. The shepherd tells Senhor José: “not everything here is what it seems… For example, the person lying here, said the shepherd, touching the mound of earth with the end of his crook, is not the person you think… none of the bodies buried here correspond to the names you see on the marble stones”, because all the numbers have been swapped.
Saramago raises a complex metaphysical subject about life and human existence. The meaning of being alive and being dead. And whether an unknown, deceased person can be given a second life through the memory of the survivors or end up as a forgotten, insignificant number? Plenty of food for thought.
The Scottish poet, Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), once said: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die” and finally a quote from Marcus Tullius Cicero the Roman politician and lawyer (106 BC- 43 BC): “The life of the dead is placed on the memories of the living. The love you gave in life keeps people alive beyond their time. Anyone who was given love will always live on in another’s heart.”