Wednesday, 16 August 2017

My review - All the Names by José Saramago

An oblivion deeper than the grave – this expression in the back-cover blurb perhaps sums the book up, whether it’s the Central Registry you are talking about or the General Cemetery, one boiling down a person’s whole life to a collection of data on cards, the other becoming a shapeless, unwieldy and near-infinite burial ground that a visitor could get lost in.

Senhor José, a mere clerk, the bottom rung of the hierarchy, a virtual machine entrusted with loads of paperwork, is the embodiment of all the people labouring under a routine existence that makes them clutch at straws for that one tiny bit of fun, that one single tinge of sugar in a sea of brine. That his straw is a woman mentioned on a record-card is immaterial. That he is ready to climb walls and smash window-panes at the age of sixty to dig into the woman’s school-life is at best a metaphor. But the fact that he follows the long, circuitous route to find her instead of the glaringly obvious is the gist of it all: we humans have carved a society for ourselves where a large section comprises of nothing but virtual clones of a life-form that is supposed to detach itself from the umbilical cord, grow up and count the rest of its breaths in a rut of endless repetition, zero entertainment and zilch for love, finally dying and occupying some space in a grave and a few smudges of ink on paper.

I feel sorry for men like Senhor José whose only chance at a once-in-a-lifetime-thrill is as cheap as getting dust-coated and cobwebbed in an array of towering bookshelves (the archive of the dead) to look for the record of an equally ordinary woman, religiously collecting tidbits of celebrities in an album, lying to a perpetually-suspecting boss, and finding solace in a hunt that is perhaps doomed from the start. That moment of weakness, when Jose toys with the idea of masturbating in the deceased woman’s bed, roiling in the scent of her erstwhile presence, made me sadder for him than I was. Should I be considered guilty if I tried to reach for a woman’s traces on her paraphernalia when my whole life had been nothing but an unromantic, yawn-inducing saga of doing nothing but plodding on an insipid job? Perhaps, necrophilia or olfactophilia wouldn’t be so abhorrent after all. Not fetish but the loser's form of love stretching across time, space and hollow decency.

Too bad that the haunting beauty of Saramago’s truths - which, incidentally, are comparable to the findings of a microscope trained on the human condition - suffers from this one malady: lack of punctuation and such compact passages that sometimes I became desperate to breathe in the midst of all the candour and moroseness churning within. Still, I’m definitely going to try his magnum opus, Blindness, if only to have a masochistic taste of what another bleak world looks like.

But before that, I need some light, frivolous reading to flush out the viscous, tar-like remains of All the Names.

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