I was given a copy of José Saramago's 'All the Names' by a dear friend one Christmas. In the first few days of January, I came down with flu for the first time in my life – a proper sweating, shivering, aching and feverish flu that made me fairly sure I was dying. It was in the hours of reprieve here and there, when I was able to sit up and open my eyes, that I began reading Saramago's novel.
As with all his fiction, the largely unpunctuated prose flows like water, so that you don't so much read it as move through it fully immersed. On the face of it, the novel doesn't seem to be about much at all – the long inner monologue of a lonely civil servant called Senhor José who works in the Central Registry for births, deaths and marriages, and who becomes obsessed with the records of a woman, called only the "unknown woman".
The novel is his pursuit of her. There's no special reason for this pursuit, which becomes an elaborate and increasingly surreal catalogue of misdeeds and lies. At a late point Senhor José reflects that he could just look the woman up in the telephone directory, but if he does that he might find her, and he doesn't want to find her – if he finds her he won't be able to look for her anymore. I think this wry detail sums up what is most wonderful about the novel; it's about the human need to connect and reach out as an end in itself.
Senhor José is driven by this need. Thoughts fall through his mind unselfconsciously, without examination, which makes him a charming, humble, hapless and real narrator. As with all Saramago's characters, José is capable of having the most elevated thoughts in the most lowly of registers, which is why the profundity of this book feels so miraculously given.
What's more, about halfway through, Senhor José gets the flu. Sometimes the way we read books is very much dictated by the context in which we read them, and this is true for me and 'All the Names'. Not only did José and I suffer together; the novel also works itself out into a dreamscape which began to sew itself into my own feverish dreams. There is one scene that involves a shepherd and a flock of sheep in a misty cemetery: so odd, singular and beautiful that I later mistook it for – and began to recount it as - a dream I'd had myself.
When a very good book finds us at just the right moment in life, it can become stitched into our own identity. 'All the Names' – a novel about identity and connection – has become stitched into mine. I'm assuming you don't need to have the flu to enjoy this book. It's a novel that has soul, which Saramago offers to his readers with all his witty, intelligent, tender and magical generosity.
Samantha Harvey's new novel, 'All is Song', is published by Jonathan Cape
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