Monday, July 9, 2007

Books: Jose Saramago - All The Names (Summer Reading Challenge)

I finished Jose Saramago's All The Names, which I had posted on earlier, describing it as Gogol's Diary of a Madman meet Terry Gilliam's Brazil. I haven't revised that earlier impression but can add this:

About sixty pages into this book, I found myself getting annoyed with the lead character's naivety. A clerk in a vast bureaucracy becomes obsessed with tracking down an anonymous woman, merely as a result of his coming in contact with her card in the files that hold the identity, birth, marriage and death of every person in an unnamed city. The clerk is a man of little originality, no imagination, and a basic education. He has no living family and no pastimes aside from assembling files at home from famous people's cards. His small sphere as well as a life lived without any risk by force of habit, limits his options in tracking down his obsession. The result begins to produce conflict in the clerk, but rather than providing drama, in this case his stupidity irritated me for quite a while, but I stuck with it and my perspective soon changed a second time. His search becomes quite surprising, suspenseful, and touching in ways which I won't spoil, and the book takes on a more philosophical flavor, exploring the value of an ordinary life, what the act of recording means and how much must we "record" to know a person. The excerpt will give you an idea of the breathless monologue style of the narrative. Even the dialogue is written this way - no quotes, no line break - just commas.

...Well, when you think about it, their lives [famous people's] are always the same, they never change, they appear, they talk, they show themselves off, they smile for the photographers, they're always arriving or departing, Just like us, Not like me, Like you and me and everyone, we all show ourselves off in various places, we talk, we leave our homes and come back, sometimes we even smile, the difference is that no one takes any notice of us, We can't all be famous, Just as well, imagine if your collection were as big as the Central Registry, It would have to be even bigger, the Central Registry only wants to know when we're born and when we die, and that's about it, Whether we marry, get divorced, widowed or remarried, the Central Registry has absolutely no interest in finding out if we were happy or unhappy while all that was going on, Happiness and unhappiness are just like famous people, they come and they go, the worst thing about the Central Registry is that they're not interested in what we're like, for them we're just a piece of paper with a few names and dates on it...

For this lonely man making the effort of relating to and knowing another person is an enormous risk. In some ways, I suppose, it is truly the ultimate risk for us all and that's what this story is about. The book is a thoughtful one, at times quite comic and at others contemplative. It was a useful context to visit the graves of stone age men and women in Ireland, while reading this story.

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