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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
it."

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
end."

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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