With each novel, Saramago creates his own world, his own physical world, metaphysical world, and literary world. He creates a premise, an uncommon premise, and then stretches its ramifications as far as his imagination will take him. And he evokes these ramifications in page-long paragraphs of dialogue among his characters, but within which the reader is never confused by whom is talking. While this review features certain plot revelations, what matters here is not the story itself but how Saramago tells his story.
This 1997 novel is the tale of a clerk, Senhor Jose, who works in his city’s Central Registry. The Registry is highly organized under the dictatorial Registrar, and contains the official records of everyone in town, their birth, marriage, and death certificates, etc., all on paper and all meticulously filed, the still living in one area, the dead in another.
Our hero, Senhor Jose, has the hobby of collecting information about famous people, such as in newspaper or magazine articles, along with copying their official records. And one day, while collecting the records of five unnamed famous figures, he finds attached to them, mysteriously, the record of an unidentified woman. Who is she? He becomes obsessed with finding out. And with this premise, Saramago takes off into his unique world.
Senhor Jose is a bachelor, middle-aged, subservient, cautious, and shy. He seems to be the last person to pursue the identity of this woman. And yet he does, drawing us into a world of regulation, of conformity, of tragic irony, of both the trivial and the search for elusive truth. On awarding Saramago the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited, “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony,” which The Times of London called, “a description which perfectly captures [this] novel.”
The pursuit by Senhor Jose takes him to an elderly neighbor of the unidentified woman, to the school she attended, into the bowels of the Registry at night, and to a cemetery. And the richness of this novel comes through the extended description of these scenes. Senhor Jose has fabricated an official letter to legitimize his search, and when the elderly neighbor sees through this subterfuge, he confesses the truth and she becomes his only friend. Then, in a marvelously moody, tense, and hilarious scene he breaks into the woman’s school at night, even sleeping on the headmaster’s couch, in a futile attempt to learn more about this woman.
Living in a house adjoining the Registry, Senhor Jose continually sneaks into it at night in search of the woman’s papers, and, on discovering she is dead, explores the dark and dusty halls the dead people’s papers have been exiled to. He also must report to work each day, or create excuses for not doing so. And at one point, the dreaded Registrar seems to take an interest in him that neither his colleagues nor this reader understands. It certainly gives him more freedom for his search, but does this reflect the author’s need to explain this freedom, or did I miss an ulterior motive?
Senhor Jose’s visit to the cemetery is the philosophical climax of the novel. He goes there to learn more of the woman, finds her grave identified only by a number, and sleeps there overnight. He awakens in the morning surrounded by sheep, and the shepherd explains that his practice is to shift the numbers on the graves, explaining “that it’s possible not to see a lie even when it’s right in front of us.” The lie of the numbers Senhor Jose takes to heart, as he witnesses a burial and then changes its number. Whereupon, in typical Saramago fashion, he speculates that the shepherd may return and himself also change the number, returning ironically the original one.
At the novel’s actual end, the Registrar confronts Senhor Jose and explains that he knows what our hero has been doing. But, he explains, it is keeping with his own idea, a new idea, that the dead should not be separated from the living, as if they no longer exist. “Just as definitive death is the ultimate fruit of the will to forget, so the will to remember will perpetuate our lives.” And at the end, he sends off Senhor Jose to find the woman’s death certificate and place it in her living file. She will live on in everyone’s memory, just as she has in Senhor Jose’s life.
This is apparently Saramago’s celebration of life. That we live on in this world in the minds, the records, of others. It is consistent with his belief in a natural but not a supernatural world. While a believer in the supernatural, I have no problem with any of his works, since the literary world itself is limited, with rare exceptions, to the natural world.
To sum up, this is typical Saramago, inventive, elusive, ironic, parabolic, and intense. It exists more on the surface of the page than within its characters, and that surface has been stretched to its limits. And so, ironically, while the title of this novel refers to a sign at the cemetery gate, none of the characters in this work actually has a name—except Senhor Jose. The people are more symbolic than real, more reflective of the anonymity of their eventual death. And the message of this volume is to suggest that we return them to the world of the living, or at least to the card catalog of the living, so that they will not cease to exist but will be remembered.
The anonymity is deepened when we realize that none of the people here are described much less given a name. But, in contrast, there is a precise description of the Central Registry, its history, its architecture, the layout of its furnishings, the clearly defined hierarchy of its staff, and the exact rules of internal communication, all offered with extensive detail.
The book jacket cites, “The loneliness of people’s lives, the effects of chance and moments of recognition, the discovery of love, however tentative.” Yes, love. In his relationship with the elderly neighbor, but also a metaphor for his complex fascination with the unidentified woman.
This is not the best of Saramago’s novels, but it works in its own terms. It establishes a truth about one’s identity; and, to demonstrate this, stretches the familiar world to realistic limits—well, to limits of realistic absurdity. (June, 2015)