Novel of the week

All the Names

Jose Saramago <em>The Harvill Press, 244pp, £15.99 hb</em>

ISBN 1860466427

A sense of time past and time passing impresses itself on any visitor to Lisbon. Once a vibrant port sending ships out to discover the unknown earth, it now slumbers listlessly in the heat. In its serpentine streets and blind alleys the generations are rudely juxtaposed: decrepit widows poke their faces from their windows into the night, while brazen music thumps out from the fado houses, nightclubs and bars all around. It is this marriage of the living and the dying - and the melancholia that it engenders - that so strongly characterises the writing of Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel laureate.

His new novel, All the Names, overbrims with metaphysical resignation. This will surprise none of his readers. Neither will his prose: the sentences linger, reaching false ends, then being resuscitated with parentheses, as meditation gives rise to further meditation. Dialogues are written without speech commas, some real, some imagined, including the memorable exchanges between the central figure, Senhor Jose, and the ceiling of his shabby room. It is a style unlike any other, perhaps wearying at times, but appropriate to the subject matter.

The event of the novel is the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, of no place or time, and the machinations of one of its clerks, Senhor Jose. Bereft even of surname and physical description, the clerk is as faceless as the office he works in, but has set himself an unusual and quite unnecessary task - to reconstruct the life of an anonymous woman whose file is incomplete. Saramago's interest is, as always, the inner life: the clerk's foibles, obsessions (he collects the details of famous people), anxieties, fears, torments, his very peculiarity which prompts him to this task. Anonymity is the theme of the book: nameless characters blankly defined by their social roles, coming to be and passing unseen and unheard away, all with inner lives which we presume to be there, much as we have to attribute minds to persons. The inner life of the anonymous woman must remain beyond the reach of the clerk, for she, it transpires, has killed herself. He cannot find the reason, the motive for her suicide can only be speculated. He goes to the cemetery to visit her grave, passes the night there. In the morning, a shepherd tells him he has switched the numbers, so that the dead might really rest in peace.

This shocking anonymity and insignificance is, it hardly needs saying, redolent of Kafka, Orwell and Koestler; the Central Registry itself of impenetrable Dickensian institutions such as the Circumlocution Office and the Law. The writing, however, has an imaginative bent strongly derivative of Borges: the first chapter - the description of the Central Registry - is as precise and measured as Borges' account of the bookshelves and staircases in his short story "The Library of Babel". Like the great fabulist, Saramago's concern is the unspeakably bizarre nature of our inner lives and the bizarre world in which our bodies act.

All The Names does not have the imaginative daring of The Stone Raft with its vision of the Iberian peninsula detaching itself at the Pyrenees and floating off into the Atlantic; nor the sustained melancholia of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. The latter, however, is very prominent. There is a line from St Luke that seems present throughout: "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" For here the demarcation between the living and the dead is hardly discernible, simply the shifting of a file from one shelf to another. The end of the novel sees both the living and the dead located on the same shelves. The distinction disappears. Just as Ricardo Reis is dead without being aware of it, so the anonymous woman, having killed herself, is as alive for Senhor Jose as she ever was. The authoritarian figure of the registrar, the deputies, the clerks, Senhor Jose, there is nothing to distinguish them from their predecessors. They play out their parts; they, too, are simply record cards filed away in the labyrinth of the Central Registry.