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Thursday, July 19th, 2001


All the Names

by Jose Saramago

Through a Glass Vaguely

A review by John Banville

When I was but a lad, and had not yet learned to beware the faux amis lying plausibly in wait for me in the playground of the French language, I imagined that the term la nouvelle vague, then much in vogue, meant not "the new wave" but something like "the new vagueness." La nouvelle vague was a journalistic appellation for the new young cinιastes, Truffaut, Resnais, Godard, and the rest, but in my mind, presumably because of the faux-homophony between nouvelle and novel, it became applied also to practitioners of the nouveau roman such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Philippe Sollers, and Nathalie Sarraute, those bright but distant stars in my slowly expanding literary firmament. "The new vagueness" seemed to me to describe very well the work of these writers, with its willfully jaded dynamics, its studied aversion to specifics, its degree-zero style.

I came to have an image of the quintessential post-modern (though the word was still only a gleam in the eye of Jacques Derrida et ses amis) European novel. There would be a faceless anti-hero, trudging the great avenues and the squalid back alleys of a nameless city, following some mysteriously ordained quest which he knows he can neither complete nor abandon, and which is, anyway, merely a metaphor for the real task in which he is engaged, namely, the search for an Identity. Even the pages of this ur-roman would have a characteristic look to them: high and narrow and somehow tottery, with squeezed margins, few paragraph breaks, and no passages of dialogue where in more conventional tales the weary reader could pause to paddle in the shallows.

All very earnest, all very enigmatic, and all maddeningly vague. And this kind of novel is still being written in mainland Europe. Every year it wins one of those little-known but highly lucrative literary prizes offered by this or that unpronounceable foundation with affiliations to the European Union. Some of these novels even deserve a prize. Some of them are even read, or at least bought, by surprisingly large numbers of people. But it is all a far, far cry from the glory days of the European novel, when a new work by Thomas Mann or Alberto Moravia or Gunter Grass would set the Sunday supplements humming with excitement.

Fiction in Europe is now generally an etiolated, unassuming, apologetic affair, a tired voice out of what seem exhausted cisterns. Opening Jose Saramago's All the Names, with its severe, oddly punctuated pages, each one tall and almost as black as the monolith in 2001, one might be forgiven an involuntary small sigh of foreboding, like those sighs with which, in another age, we used to greet some poetaster's latest slim volume of verse. Despite the many graces of All the Names, such a first response to it would be not entirely unjustified.

Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922, in what one of his English publishers calls "a small farming community north of the Alentejo," and when still a boy he moved with his family to Lisbon. He left school early, and worked as a mechanic, a draughtsman, a civil servant, and in publishing. When he was twenty-five he published a novel, presumably without success, and his literary career did not begin in earnest until he was in his middle forties. He produced three volumes of poetry, he was a journalist and translator, and then he published his second novel, the wonderfully titled Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (one gleefully imagines the confusion in bookshops, not to mention library catalogues). In 1988, his novel Baltasar and Blimunda appeared in English, and the following year he had a modest success in the English-speaking world with what is perhaps his best-known, if not his best, novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Other works have followed, including The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and the extraordinary Blindness. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998.

The finest of these books are The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and Blindness. The former is a sort of Portuguese Ulysses, and it can probably only be fully appreciated, as Saramago himself has suggested, by readers who are themselves Portuguese, calling as it does for a considerable knowledge of Portugal's history as a great empire and later as a dictatorship under Salazar. Ricardo Reis was one of the very many pen-names, or better say, one of the very many identities assumed by the elusive Portuguese poet and aphorist Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), and much of the novel is a recounting of meetings and conversations in Lisbon in the 1930s between Reis and his creator, who, when the narrative opens, has recently died.

Yes, it is that kind of book. Still, Saramago here avoids the self-consciousness and the risible portentousness of so much fantastical fiction that has emerged in recent years from the "Latin" countries, from South America and, especially, from the Indian subcontinent. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis bubbles with underground laughter, and despite the absurdity of its central premise – a deceased writer conversing at length with an invented version of himself – which would have been unbearably whimsical in the hands of a lesser writer, it keeps its feet firmly set on that mundane ground where the novel is at its strongest:

"Ricardo Reis goes to lunch, on this occasion to the Chave de Ouro, for a steak...and with so many hours to go before nightfall he buys a ticket for a movie, he will see The Volga Boatmen, a French film with Pierre Blanchard, what Volga can they possibly have invented in France."

Saramago has a light, graceful, ironical touch, and he maintains a welcome restraint in his use of the paraphernalia of magical realism, that literary dead-end into which so many talented writers have stumbled over the past two or three decades, chasing like lemmings after the ghosts of the colorful Buendia clan. Saramago is well-aware that, contrary to popular notions, one of the novelist's primary duties is to keep his imagination under tight control. In fantastic fictions, what is presented as exuberance is often merely unruliness. For the rule of magical realism is that there are no rules. When you can say anything, however, the danger is that you will do exactly that: say anything. The inventor of magical realism did produce a masterpiece, but the judicious critic might say of One Hundred Years of Solitude what T.S. Eliot said of Finnegans Wake, that one book like this is enough.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is moving, and wise, and in places slyly funny. But there is not much fun to be had in Blindness, a dystopian account of what happens when everyone in the world suddenly goes blind, with the exception of one woman, the wife, suitably enough, of an ophthalmologist. In a chilling twist, what the epidemic of blindness brings to its victims is not darkness, but a blank white glare. There is an awful inevitability to the descent into anarchy and internecine warfare that the book traces (it was Eliot, again, who foresaw such warfare as the future of mankind, "people fighting each other in the streets"), but Saramago resists the temptation to indulge in Burroughs-esque grotesqueries. Here are perfectly ordinary people struggling to cope with total catastrophe – or, at the other end of the human scale, seizing the opportunity to indulge their basest urgings.

The section of the novel in which a gang of thugs forces a group of women to submit to sexual degradation in return for food is truly horrifying, not least because it is so calmly described. It is possible, reading such passages, to believe that posterity may well set Blindness on the same lofty shelf as the works of Swift and Cιline. All the same, at the end a little light does dawn, when people's eyesight returns as suddenly as it vanished, although what they have to look on is a world in ruins.

At the end of Blindness, the woman who all along could see encounters a blind writer who has continued at his craft despite not being able to read what he is writing.

The doctor's wife asked, "May I?" Without waiting for a reply she picked up the written pages, there must have been about twenty, she passed her eye over the tiny handwriting, over the lines which went up and down, over the words inscribed on the whiteness of the page, recorded in blindness, I am only passing through, the writer had said, and these were the signs he had left in passing.

Something of the same obsessiveness and dogged refusal to abandon a dubious enterprise is displayed, alas, by the protagonist (if that is the word) of Saramago's latest novel, All the Names.

This is the story (if that is the word) of a lowly clerk working in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths who embarks on a search to locate a woman whose birth certificate finds its way by accident into "his extensive collection of news items about people in his country who, for good reasons and bad, had becomes famous." The clerk's name is Senhor Jose; we are assured that he also has surnames, "very ordinary ones, nothing extravagant," but everyone, including his creator, knows him simply as Senhor Jose. In fact, he is the only character in the novel who, despite the book's title, is given any kind of name, all the others being identified simply by what they are or what they do. One supposes this is meant to Mean Something. Are we back to the quest for identity?

Senhor Jose lives in a small, shabby house attached to one of the massive walls of the Central Registry, to which he has direct access through his back door. In the Registry there is a strict hierarchy of command: at the bottom are Senhor Jose and his fellow drudges, at the top is the remote and olympian Registrar, "who knows all there is to know about the kingdoms of the visible and the invisible." It is under the withering and all-seeing eye of this potentate that Senhor Jose goes in search of the "unknown woman." He identifies the school where she was a pupil, and breaks into it at night in search of her records – this is a mournfully funny episode – and from there goes on to discover where she lived, learns that she married, and was divorced, and was a teacher at her old school, and at last, at a genuinely startling juncture in the narrative, that she is dead, and by her own hand. Even this fact, however, does not deter Senhor Jose, this hapless Orpheus who will follow his unknown Euridice even into the land of the dead.

All the Names is a curious mixture of the portentous and the absurd. It has strong echoes of Borges, Beckett, and, of course, Kafka; but its voice is distinctive and thoroughly its own. Despite the reticence of tone and the lugubrious nature of the action (such as it is), the reader will have an unflagging sense of something profound going on just beyond the limits of comprehension. The book is Modernist rather than Postmodernist – or Humanist rather than Post-Humanist; Saramago, for all his elusiveness and sly humor, is concerned that we should understand and appreciate the seriousness, the deadly seriousness, of the quest that his poor, Quixotic protagonist has embarked on, and which, it seems, will never be brought to an end, except by death.

In the course of a long address to his staff, the Registrar seems to provide a motto that his clerk might carry with him on his errantry: "Just as definitive death is the ultimate fruit of the will to forget, so the will to remember will perpetuate our lives." I do not pretend to know exactly what this pronouncement, and many other such pronouncements, may signify, but they do seem to signify something worth knowing. When Senhor Jose finally gains access to the book's version of the Chapel Perilous – that is, the unknown woman's empty apartment – the narrative delivers what seems both a valediction and a validation:

Here lived a woman who committed suicide for unknown reasons, who had been married and got divorced, who could have gone to live with her parents after the divorce, but had preferred to live alone, a woman who, like all women, was once a child and a girl, but who even then, in a certain indefinable way, was already the woman she was going to be, a mathematics teacher whose name while she was alive was in the Central Registry, along with the names of all the people alive in this city, a woman whose dead name returned to the living world because Senhor Jose went to rescue her from the dead world, just her name, not her, a clerk can only do so much.

What can any of us do, Saramago seems to be saying, except – like the blind writer, like the unknown woman, like Senhor Jose himself – leave a few scribbled signs for those who come after us to read as best they can? But if this is so, then surely it must also be our duty to make the meaning of our signs as tangible as possible for those who come after us. Otherwise all we will have done is put impediments in the way of the blind. Vagueness may be fashionable, but clarity is timeless.

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