A model of restraint wonders, 'What's in a name?'

All the Names By Jos Saramago Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa Harcourt Brace 236 pp., $24

Reading the Portuguese writer Jos Saramago, one quickly senses the presence of a master. One is reminded, perhaps, of the serious playfulness of his illustrious countryman Fernando Pessoa, the comic spirit of Cervantes, the bookish fantasies of Borges, or Kafka's disquieting ability to suggest deep meaning in absurdity.

Modest, self-mocking, mildly ironic, yet magisterial, Saramago's gentle voice rings with the unmistakable authority of the true artist. The fertility of his imagination can be seen in all his work, from his powerful historical reverie "Baltasar and Blimunda" (1987) to his brilliant and affecting modern parable "Blindness" (1998).

The latest novel from this Nobel Prize winner, "All the Names," revisits a motif from his earlier book "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" (1997). In each case, we meet a humble clerk who unexpectedly commits a rash act. By adding a single word to a chronicle, the clerk in "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" opens up a whole new world of possibilities. In "All the Names," an equally unassuming clerk finds himself committing all kinds of strange deeds in his quest to learn more about a woman he's never even met.

Senhor Jos is a quiet, self-effacing bachelor, 50 years old, celibate. He works in a low-level position at the Central Registry, a vast archive full of birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates. His only hobby is collecting newspaper cuttings about famous people. While surreptitiously searching the official files for additional data on the famous, he accidentally picks up the birth certificate of an unknown woman:

"Senhor Jos looks and looks again at what is written on the card ... thirty-six years ago another clerk wrote the words you can read here, the name of the baby girl, the names of her parents ..., the date and hour of her birth, the street and the number of the apartment where she first saw the light of day and first felt pain, the same beginning as everyone else, the differences, great and small, come later, some of those who are born become entries in encyclopedias, in history books ... the others, roughly speaking, are like a cloud that passes without leaving behind it any trace of its passing, and if rain fell from that cloud it did not even wet the earth. Like me, thought Senhor Jos."

To his surprise, he discovers himself feeling that this unknown woman is as important as all of his "famous" people put together. From this point on, Senhor Jos becomes obsessed with learning more about her. He sneaks into the Central Registry archives after hours. He forges a letter from the Registrar, the Central Registry's stern, remote director, authorizing him to make inquiries. He visits the building where the woman was born and questions the tenants. He even risks being apprehended as a burglar by breaking into the school she attended. He is prepared to do just about anything except the most obvious and direct thing: look her up in the phone book and give her a call.

In the course of his investigations, the shy and lonely clerk comes close to making a new friend: a helpful old woman in the ground-floor apartment of the building where the unknown woman was born. With just a few deft brushstrokes, Saramago delicately conveys the great pleasure two people can find in a simple conversation.

Ironically, although "All the Names" portrays a world overflowing with names - the hundred or so famous names in Senhor Jos's collection of clippings, the countless names of ordinary people, living or dead, contained in the files of the Central Registry - Saramago does not tell us the name of anyone in this novel, except for Senhor Jos, who has the most common of first names and whose last name is never revealed. Names, indeed, are only nominal: They do not describe a person's essence. But names are what we human beings give ourselves in the belief that each of us is somehow distinctive, somehow matters. What Senhor Jos poignantly comes to understand is the vanity of supposing that our names will long endure, but the importance of realizing that each of us matters a great deal nonetheless.

Reading the Portuguese writer Jos Saramago, one quickly senses the presence of a master. One is reminded, perhaps, of the serious playfulness of his illustrious countryman Fernando Pessoa, the comic spirit of Cervantes, the bookish fantasies of Borges, or Kafka's disquieting ability to suggest deep meaning in absurdity.

Modest, self-mocking, mildly ironic, yet magisterial, Saramago's gentle voice rings with the unmistakable authority of the true artist. The fertility of his imagination can be seen in all his work, from his powerful historical reverie "Baltasar and Blimunda" (1987) to his brilliant and affecting modern parable "Blindness" (1998).

The latest novel from this Nobel Prize winner, "All the Names," revisits a motif from his earlier book "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" (1997). In each case, we meet a humble clerk who unexpectedly commits a rash act. By adding a single word to a chronicle, the clerk in "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" opens up a whole new world of possibilities. In "All the Names," an equally unassuming clerk finds himself committing all kinds of strange deeds in his quest to learn more about a woman he's never even met.

Senhor Jos is a quiet, self-effacing bachelor, 50 years old, celibate. He works in a low-level position at the Central Registry, a vast archive full of birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates. His only hobby is collecting newspaper cuttings about famous people. While surreptitiously searching the official files for additional data on the famous, he accidentally picks up the birth certificate of an unknown woman:

"Senhor Jos looks and looks again at what is written on the card ... thirty-six years ago another clerk wrote the words you can read here, the name of the baby girl, the names of her parents ..., the date and hour of her birth, the street and the number of the apartment where she first saw the light of day and first felt pain, the same beginning as everyone else, the differences, great and small, come later, some of those who are born become entries in encyclopedias, in history books ... the others, roughly speaking, are like a cloud that passes without leaving behind it any trace of its passing, and if rain fell from that cloud it did not even wet the earth. Like me, thought Senhor Jos."

To his surprise, he discovers himself feeling that this unknown woman is as important as all of his "famous" people put together. From this point on, Senhor Jos becomes obsessed with learning more about her. He sneaks into the Central Registry archives after hours. He forges a letter from the Registrar, the Central Registry's stern, remote director, authorizing him to make inquiries. He visits the building where the woman was born and questions the tenants. He even risks being apprehended as a burglar by breaking into the school she attended. He is prepared to do just about anything except the most obvious and direct thing: look her up in the phone book and give her a call.

In the course of his investigations, the shy and lonely clerk comes close to making a new friend: a helpful old woman in the ground-floor apartment of the building where the unknown woman was born. With just a few deft brushstrokes, Saramago delicately conveys the great pleasure two people can find in a simple conversation.

Ironically, although "All the Names" portrays a world overflowing with names - the hundred or so famous names in Senhor Jos's collection of clippings, the countless names of ordinary people, living or dead, contained in the files of the Central Registry - Saramago does not tell us the name of anyone in this novel, except for Senhor Jos, who has the most common of first names and whose last name is never revealed. Names, indeed, are only nominal: They do not describe a person's essence. But names are what we human beings give ourselves in the belief that each of us is somehow distinctive, somehow matters. What Senhor Jos poignantly comes to understand is the vanity of supposing that our names will long endure, but the importance of realizing that each of us matters a great deal nonetheless.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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