February 11, 2001
José Saramago was born in 1922 in Portugal and spent most of his adult life as a journalist, editor, and translator. His first novel, “Baltasar and Blimunda,” was published in 1979 and was an international success. He has published six more novels, most recently “All the Names,” and a children’s book, “The Tale of the Unknown Island.” In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Nobel committee called Saramago’s novels “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony.” Yes and no. There is indeed plenty of imagination, compassion, and irony. But a parable, says the dictionary, is “a short, simple story from which a moral may be drawn.” For the most part, Saramago’s novels are neither short nor simple, and drawing a moral from any of them is not easy. They certainly aren’t much like the New Testament parables, which are earnest, uplifting, and populated by types rather than characters. Saramago is no doubt a humanist, but a slightly sour one; “compassion” is too moist a word for his acerbic, even if affectionate, mockery of human nature. And one never feels, as with most parables, that the moral is the point of the story – in these novels the story, with its jokes and barbs and extravagant conceits, is the point.
All Saramago’s novels have a magical or fantastic premise. Blimunda, an early-18th-century peasant woman, traps wills as they escape from dying bodies and turns them over to a freethinking priest, who uses them to power the first flying machine. The ghost of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s leading 20th-century poet, is a principal character in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. The ways of God, which Milton justified to man in Paradise Lost, are un-justified in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. An entire country goes blind, with one exception, in Blindness. A woman drags a branch along the ground, a rift opens in the earth, and the Iberian peninsula floats out to sea in The Stone Raft. A proofreader mischievously inserts a word into a historian’s manuscript, and a country’s sense of itself is turned inside out in A History of the Siege of Lisbon. All these inventions and inversions are ultimately in the service of moral and metaphysical allegory, but along the way they also make possible much sly satire and verbal play.
In All the Names a humble, rather downtrodden clerk, Senhor José, in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths of a large city (nameless, like everyone and everyplace else in the novel except Senhor José, who, being a kind of Everyman, is also, in a way, anonymous) undertakes a quest. His only hobby – in fact, his only manifestation of individuality – is a clipping file of 100 famous people. One fateful evening Senhor José resolves to round out his information about these celebrities with the biographical data on file in the Registry. This means sneaking into the Registry at night, since the clerk’s days are passed under the strict supervision of the all-seeing Registrar and his deputies.
Following this infraction of the rules, Senhor José’s tidy world unravels. On one of his nocturnal forays, he accidentally removes an extra file card. The person is not famous, just an ordinary woman: 36 years old, married, divorced, no further information available. For no apparent reason, Senhor José sets out to find her. He never does, but his adventures along the way – interviewing her ex-neighbors, breaking into her high school records office, discussing his next moves with the ceiling above his bed – are as droll and mock-epic as Don Quixote’s. In the end, the omnipotent and omniscient Registrar turns out to have known all along about Senhor José’s quest, which has accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of altering the official view of life and death. The heroic little clerk has struck a blow for disorder and uncertainly in the stiflingly organized bureaucratic universe.
What’s most subversive, perhaps, are Saramago’s sentences. They are often outrageously long, their punctuation highly idiosyncratic, their tone alternately metaphysical and jokey; yet they’re always intelligible, their rhythm always right, their comic timing impeccable. (He has been very lucky in his English translators, Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa.) A specimen:
“There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world, and for a short while they manage it, but only as long as they are there to defend their collection, because when the day comes when it must be dispersed, and that day always comes, either with their death or when the collector grows weary, everything goes back to its beginnings, everything returns to chaos.”
Like its predecessors, All the Names combines Voltairean philosophical iconoclasm, a Kafkaesque sense of individual vulnerability to methodical bureaucratic madness, and Borgesian whimsical absurdism, along with touches of Mediterranean peasant shrewdness, earthiness, and caustic wit. One strain of Saramago’s sensibility tempers the others: the atmosphere of undefined menace and cosmic malevolence is made bearable by a few characters’ grace and kindness; the fairy-tale improbabilities of the plot are anchored by the narrator’s wry commentary. The result seems like just the right spirit – despairing hope, bemused rationality, sarcastic tenderness – in which to take the 20th century.