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Just a Fable

Just a Fable

This story runs aground somewhat when it swims into
its dream imagery, but the tale is sweet and good-natured.
By Bondo Wyszpolski

All The Names, by José Saramago, translated
by Margaret Jull Costa (Harcourt, 238 pp., $24)

The labyrinthine storage space of the Central Registry of Births,
Marriages and Deaths is so vast and complicated that—after one researcher was lost
for a week and nearly given up for dead—the clerks who venture into its depths began
using what they called `Ariadne’s thread,’ a lifeline that helps them find their way out.
The huge structure sits in an old city that’s never identified. As the author describes
it, "the whole building had the air of a ruin fixed in time, as if it had been
mummified rather than restored when the dilapidated state of its materials demanded

In the Central Registry (where, indeed, `all the names’ are filed) Senhor José is at
the lower end of the pecking order, which is shaped like a triangle: eight clerks, four
senior clerks, two deputy registrars, and the Registrar himself. Has Nobel Prize-winning
novelist José Saramago (whose books include The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
and Blindness) gone Orwellian on us? Is his latest offering meant to invoke Kafka
and that writer’s infamous Joseph K? Orson Welles’ film treatment of The Trial
comes to mind, particularly as Senhor José (surname? none given) is an antlike,
nondescript clerk of fifty who has never, never stepped out of line.

All The Names doesn’t really begin on a promising note, its opening pages
suggesting that it might prove a little too cerebral or insular to make for compelling
reading—an issue some of us grappled with in The History of the Siege of Lisbon.
The latter was a smart, incisive book, but in places it went dry.

All The Names, however, is for the most part a fascinating story, somewhat
politically surreal like The Stone Raft with far less of the magic realism that
characterized Baltasar and Blimunda. While it bears some resemblance to the
scholarly pursuits that underpinned The History of the Siege of Lisbon, it also
captures and conveys the hidden tension that made Blindness so riveting.

Not only is Senhor José a faceless cog in the bureaucratic machine, he lives in a
simple house that’s butted up against the very archives where he works. As if that isn’t
enough, there’s a connecting door between his modest home and the gargantuan building
where he works.

Senhor José apparently has no friends, no sweetheart, and only one hobby: he clips and
saves news items about famous people. One day it occurs to him to attach some kind of
official documentation to each of them, to anchor them in the official records perhaps, so
he begins a clandestine process of borrowing, transcribing, and then returning the cards
of the various celebrities in his collection. But what happens is that by chance the card
of an unknown woman gets caught up among several others he has taken.

All we know about this unknown woman is that she’s 36-years-old, was married and is now
divorced. By all accounts she’s a woman of no consequence and logically Senhor José would
realize that he’d picked up her card by mistake and should simply return it and re-file it
without further ado. Instead, he’s fascinated by it. Why? Here’s one clue. In The Stone
Raft, pp. 108-108, Saramago writes, "and to think that there are people who do
not believe in coincidences, when one is constantly discovering coincidences in the world
and is beginning to wonder if coincidences are not the very logic of this world."

The investigation begins, and not always with Ariadne’s thread securely tied around his
middle to get Senhor José back and forth without some missteps and misadventures. The
novel will take many allegorical twists and turns (the reference to Ariadne alludes to the
Minotaur, doesn’t it?), with at least one encounter (the shepherd and his flock of sheep
in the cemetery) that will remind us that Saramago is also the author of a splendid volume
entitled The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

If All The Names can be likened to an exploration, a voyage of discovery even,
then it is a quiet and restrained journey that unravels without bells and whistles,
without bodies being flung from trains. Although told in the third person, Senhor José’s
conversations are mostly interior monologues, one strange exception being the discussion
between himself, lying on his bed, and the ceiling over his head. It is an amusing
exchange, wry but scintillating. There are also many curlicues in the long, ribbon-like
sentences, such as "no one ever died from going for a while without eating between
meals, except when the second meal was so long in being served that it did not appear in
time to be served at all."

The story, which on one level is about the continuity and interconnectedness between
the living and the dead, unfolds slowly, but perhaps inevitably. Senhor José is methodic,
but in his own roundabout, antiquated way, so that sometimes we aren’t sure if he really
wants to track down the unknown woman or simply savor the thrills of the search. While All
The Names is not a book that sizzles and shocks, it is an exquisite, profound, and
sublime piece of writing, and a solid addition to one of the most impressive bodies of
work created by any author in the 20th century.

Excerpt from All The Names:

"I’m not stupid, No, you’re
not, it’s just that you take a long time to understand things, especially simple things,
For example, That there was no reason why you should go looking for this woman, unless,
Unless what, Unless you were doing it out of love, Only a ceiling would come up with such
an absurd idea, I believe I’ve told you on another occasion that the ceilings of houses
are the multiple eye of God, I don’t remember, I may not have said it in those precise
words, but I’m saying it now, Tell me then how I could possibly love a woman I didn’t even
know and whom I’d never even seen, That’s a good question, there’s no doubt about it, but
only you can answer it, The idea doesn’t have a leg to stand on, It doesn’t matter whether
it’s got legs or not, I’m talking about quite another part of the anatomy, the heart, the
thing that people say is the engine and seat of affections, I repeat that I could not
possibly love a woman I didn’t know, whom I never saw, except in some old photos, You
wanted to see her, you wanted to know her, and that, whether you like it or not, is love,
These are the imaginings of a ceiling, They’re your imaginings, a man’s imaginings, not
mine, You’re so arrogant, you think you know everything about me, I don’t know everything,
but I must have learned a thing or two after all these years of living together, I bet
you’ve never considered that you and I live together, the great difference between us is
that you only notice me when you need advice and cast your eyes upwards, while I spend all
my time looking at you, The eye of God, You can take my metaphors seriously if you like,
but don’t repeat them as if they were yours. After this, the ceiling decided to remain
silent, it had realized that Senhor José’s thoughts were already turned to the visit he
was going to make to the unknown woman’s parents, the last step before bumping his nose
against the wall, an equally metaphorical expression which means, You’ve reached the

Just a Fable
This story runs aground somewhat when it swims into
its dream imagery, but the tale is sweet and good-natured.

Bondo Wyszpolski

The Tale of the
Unknown Island, by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
(Harvest/Harcourt, 51 pp., $9 paper)

Let’s move from the unknown woman to the unknown island, and to a
rather delightful and instructive fable that José Saramago wrote called The Tale of
the Unknown Island. This is a slight work with big type and greeting card
illustrations by Peter Sís that was published in hardcover last year, presumably to fill
the lull between Blindness and All the Names, and to profit from Saramago’s
receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

In this fairy tale for adults and children, a man knocks at one of the doors of the
king’s palace and demands a boat so he can go in search of an unknown island. He’s fairly
confident the king won’t refuse him. He’s right. The king, impressed with the man’s
obstinacy, if not his logic, grants him a boat. Finding a crew is another matter, even
though the palace cleaning lady, of all people, has decided to join him. But nobody else
wants to set sail. As the man reports to the woman, "They said there are no more
unknown islands and that, even if there were, they weren’t prepared to leave the comfort
of their homes and the good life on board passenger ships just to get involved in some
oceangoing adventure, looking for the impossible." He then explains why he wants to
discover the unknown island: "If you don’t step outside yourself, you’ll never
discover who you are."

The little book, hardly more than a short story, echoes All the Names, since it
narrates what can happen when an individual—actually two individuals, let’s not
forget the cleaning lady—steps out of the bureaucratic assembly line and chooses to
venture beyond the safe and the familiar. For this reviewer the story runs aground
somewhat when it swims into its dream imagery, but the tale is sweet and good-natured and
the translation by Margaret Jull Costa is, as with All the Names, smooth and fluid.

Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and entertainment section of the
Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the South Bay of southern California. He
can be reached at bwyszpolski@earthlink.net

Excerpt from The Tale of the Unknown Island:

"And the sailors, she
asked, No one came, as you can see, But did some at least say they would come, she asked,
They said there are no more unknown islands and that, even if there were, they weren’t
prepared to leave the comfort of their homes and the good life on board passenger ships
just to get involved in some oceangoing adventure, looking for the impossible, as if we
were still living in the days when the sea was dark, And what did you say to them, That
the sea is always dark, And you didn’t tell them about the unknown island, How could I
tell them about an unknown island, if I don’t even know where it is, But you’re sure it
exists, As sure as I am that the sea is dark, Right now, seen from up here, with the water
the color of jade and the sky ablaze, it doesn’t seem at all dark to me, That’s just an
illusion, sometimes islands seem to float above the surface of the water, but it’s not
true, How do you think you’ll manage if you haven’t got a crew, I don’t know yet, We could
live here, and I could get work cleaning the boats that come into port, and you, And I,
You must have some skill, a craft, a profession, as they call it nowadays, I have, did
have, will have if necessary, but I want to find the unknown island, I want to find out
who I am when I’m there on that island, Don’t you know, If you don’t step outside
yourself, you’ll never discover who you are."

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It seems the future never arrives in Brazil What Lies Ahead in Brazil? Brazil Has No Exemplary Past or Present. But What Lies Ahead for the Country? Europeans, US, developed country, developing country. Bolsonaro, future B. Michael Rubin For years, experts have debated what separates a developing country from a developed one. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of a country is one simple way to measure its economic development. Another way to measure a country's progress is the extent of public education, e.g. how many citizens complete high school. A country's health may be measured by the effectiveness of its healthcare system, for example, life expectancy and infant mortality. With these measurement tools, it's easier to gauge the difference between a country like Brazil and one like the U.S. What's not easy to gauge is how these two countries developed so differently when they were both "discovered" at the same time. In 1492 and 1500 respectively, the U.S. and Brazil fell under the spell of white Europeans for the first time. While the British and Portuguese had the same modus operandi, namely, to exploit their discoveries for whatever they had to offer, not to mention extinguishing the native Americans already living there if they got in the way, the end result turned out significantly different in the U.S. than in Brazil. There are several theories on how/why the U.S. developed at a faster pace than Brazil. The theories originate via contrasting perspectives – from psychology to economics to geography. One of the most popular theories suggests the divergence between the two countries is linked to politics, i.e. the U.S. established a democratic government in 1776, while Brazil's democracy it could be said began only in earnest in the 1980s. This theory states that the Portuguese monarchy, as well as the 19th and 20th century oligarchies that followed it, had no motivation to invest in industrial development or education of the masses. Rather, Brazil was prized for its cheap and plentiful labor to mine the rich soil of its vast land. There is another theory based on collective psychology that says the first U.S. colonizers from England were workaholic Puritans, who avoided dancing and music in place of work and religious devotion. They labored six days a week then spent all of Sunday in church. Meanwhile, the white settlers in Brazil were unambitious criminals who had been freed from prison in Portugal in exchange for settling in Brazil. The Marxist interpretation of why Brazil lags behind the U.S. was best summarized by Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, in 1970. Galeano said five hundred years ago the U.S. had the good fortune of bad fortune. What he meant was the natural riches of Brazil – gold, silver, and diamonds – made it ripe for exploitation by western Europe. Whereas in the U.S., lacking such riches, the thirteen colonies were economically insignificant to the British. Instead, U.S. industrialization had official encouragement from England, resulting in early diversification of its exports and rapid development of manufacturing. II Leaving this debate to the historians, let us turn our focus to the future. According to global projections by several economic strategists, what lies ahead for Brazil, the U.S., and the rest of the world is startling. Projections forecast that based on GDP growth, in 2050 the world's largest economy will be China, not the U.S. In third place will be India, and in fourth – Brazil. With the ascendency of three-fourths of the BRIC countries over the next decades, it will be important to reevaluate the terms developed and developing. In thirty years, it may no longer be necessary to accept the label characterized by Nelson Rodrigues's famous phrase "complexo de vira-lata," for Brazil's national inferiority complex. For Brazilians, this future scenario presents glistening hope. A country with stronger economic power would mean the government has greater wealth to expend on infrastructure, crime control, education, healthcare, etc. What many Brazilians are not cognizant of are the pitfalls of economic prosperity. While Brazilians today may be envious of their wealthier northern neighbors, there are some aspects of a developed country's profile that are not worth envying. For example, the U.S. today far exceeds Brazil in the number of suicides, prescription drug overdoses, and mass shootings. GDP growth and economic projections depend on multiple variables, chief among them the global economic situation and worldwide political stability. A war in the Middle East, for example, can affect oil production and have global ramifications. Political stability within a country is also essential to its economic health. Elected presidents play a crucial role in a country's progress, especially as presidents may differ radically in their worldview. The political paths of the U.S. and Brazil are parallel today. In both countries, we've seen a left-wing regime (Obama/PT) followed by a far-right populist one (Trump/Bolsonaro), surprising many outside observers, and in the U.S. contradicting every political pollster, all of whom predicted a Trump loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Brazil, although Bolsonaro was elected by a clear majority, his triumph has created a powerful emotional polarization in the country similar to what is happening in the U.S. Families, friends, and colleagues have split in a love/hate relationship toward the current presidents in the U.S. and Brazil, leaving broken friendships and family ties. Both presidents face enormous challenges to keep their campaign promises. In Brazil, a sluggish economy just recovering from a recession shows no signs of robust GDP growth for at least the next two years. High unemployment continues to devastate the consumer confidence index in Brazil, and Bolsonaro is suffering under his campaign boasts that his Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, has all the answers to fix Brazil's slump. Additionally, there is no end to the destruction caused by corruption in Brazil. Some experts believe corruption to be the main reason why Brazil has one of the world's largest wealth inequality gaps. Political corruption robs government coffers of desperately needed funds for education and infrastructure, in addition to creating an atmosphere that encourages everyday citizens to underreport income and engage in the shadow economy, thereby sidestepping tax collectors and regulators. "Why should I be honest about reporting my income when nobody else is? The politicians are only going to steal the tax money anyway," one Brazilian doctor told me. While Bolsonaro has promised a housecleaning of corrupt officials, this is a cry Brazilians have heard from every previous administration. In only the first half-year of his presidency, he has made several missteps, such as nominating one of his sons to be the new ambassador to the U.S., despite the congressman's lack of diplomatic credentials. A June poll found that 51 percent of Brazilians now lack confidence in Bolsonaro's leadership. Just this week, Brazil issued regulations that open a fast-track to deport foreigners who are dangerous or have violated the constitution. The rules published on July 26 by Justice Minister Sérgio Moro define a dangerous person as anyone associated with terrorism or organized crime, in addition to football fans with a violent history. Journalists noted that this new regulation had coincidental timing for an American journalist who has come under fire from Moro for publishing private communications of Moro's. Nevertheless, despite overselling his leadership skills, Bolsonaro has made some economic progress. With the help of congressional leader Rodrigo Maia, a bill is moving forward in congress for the restructuring of Brazil's generous pension system. Most Brazilians recognize the long-term value of such a change, which can save the government billions of dollars over the next decade. At merely the possibility of pension reform, outside investors have responded positively, and the São Paulo stock exchange has performed brilliantly, reaching an all-time high earlier this month. In efforts to boost the economy, Bolsonaro and Paulo Guedes have taken the short-term approach advocated by the Chicago school of economics championed by Milton Friedman, who claimed the key to boosting a slugging economy was to cut government spending. Unfortunately many economists, such as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, disagree with this approach. They believe the most effective way to revive a slow economy is exactly the opposite, to spend more money not less. They say the government should be investing money in education and infrastructure projects, which can help put people back to work. Bolsonaro/Guedes have also talked about reducing business bureaucracy and revising the absurdly complex Brazilian tax system, which inhibits foreign and domestic business investment. It remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro has the political acumen to tackle this Godzilla-sized issue. Should Bolsonaro find a way to reform the tax system, the pension system, and curb the most egregious villains of political bribery and kickbacks – a tall order – his efforts could indeed show strong economic results in time for the next election in 2022. Meanwhile, some prominent leaders have already lost faith in Bolsonaro's efforts. The veteran of political/economic affairs, Joaquim Levy, has parted company with the president after being appointed head of the government's powerful development bank, BNDES. Levy and Bolsonaro butted heads over an appointment Levy made of a former employee of Lula's. When neither man refused to back down, Levy resigned his position at BNDES. Many observers believe Bolsonaro's biggest misstep has been his short-term approach to fixing the economy by loosening the laws protecting the Amazon rainforest. He and Guedes believe that by opening up more of the Amazon to logging, mining, and farming, we will see immediate economic stimulation. On July 28, the lead article of The New York Times detailed the vastly increased deforestation in the Amazon taking place under Bolsonaro's leadership. Environmental experts argue that the economic benefits of increased logging and mining in the Amazon are microscopic compared to the long-term damage to the environment. After pressure from European leaders at the recent G-20 meeting to do more to protect the world's largest rainforest, Bolsonaro echoed a patriotic response demanding that no one has the right to an opinion about the Amazon except Brazilians. In retaliation to worldwide criticism, Bolsonaro threatened to follow Trump's example and pull out of the Paris climate accord; however, Bolsonaro was persuaded by cooler heads to retract his threat. To prove who was in control of Brazil's Amazon region, he appointed a federal police officer with strong ties to agribusiness as head of FUNAI, the country's indigenous agency. In a further insult to the world's environmental leaders, not to mention common sense, Paulo Guedes held a news conference on July 25 in Manaus, the largest city in the rainforest, where he declared that since the Amazon forest is known for being the "lungs" of the world, Brazil should charge other countries for all the oxygen the forest produces. Bolsonaro/Guedes also have promised to finish paving BR-319, a controversial highway that cuts through the Amazon forest, linking Manaus to the state of Rondônia and the rest of the country. Inaugurated in 1976, BR-319 was abandoned by federal governments in the 1980s and again in the 1990s as far too costly and risky. Environmentalists believe the highway's completion will seal a death knoll on many indigenous populations by vastly facilitating the growth of the logging and mining industries. Several dozen heavily armed miners dressed in military fatigues invaded a Wajãpi village recently in the state of Amapá near the border of French Guiana and fatally stabbed one of the community's leaders. While Brazil's environmental protection policies are desperately lacking these days, not all the news here was bad. On the opening day of the 2019 Pan America Games in Lima, Peru, Brazilian Luisa Baptista, swam, biked, and ran her way to the gold medal in the women's triathlon. The silver medal went to Vittoria Lopes, another Brazilian. B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil.

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