All the names are on cards in the Central Registry. The names are the living and the dead. The living are increasing and the dead are increasing even more because dead is dead, a permanent condition, and those names are piling up, requiring us to move the back wall of the Central Registry to make more space. More space, but not more light. It is very dark in the archives of the dead. Take a flashlight and tie Ariadne’s string to your ankle so that you can find your way back.
I struggled through my first reading of a Saramago novel (The Double), was brought to reluctant admiration by the second (Blindness) and have been totally hypnotized by All the Names. For a novel based on names, it is very shy about revealing them. José has a name but others have only titles or descriptors: the unknown woman, the Registrar, the shepherd. As to José himself,
Apart from this first name, José, Senhor José also has surnames, very ordinary ones, nothing extravagant, one from his father’s side, another from his mother’s, as is normal, names legitimately transmitted, as we could confirm in the Register of Births in the Central Registry if the matter justified our interest and if the results of that inquiry repaid the labour of merely confirming what we already know.
You have just experienced a sample of Saramago’s style. Be patient, it grows on you as we learn not only what is in José’s mind and experience but also what the author has to say about it. The reality of the Central Registry is not the people or their names, but the record cards themselves. They must be kept — in ink on thin paper in the traditional style — and filed and, ultimately, pushed into the archives of the dead. Where are the real dead, the bodies represented by the piles of paper trash pushed to the back wall of the Central Registry? In the General Cemetery which, unlike the Central Registry, has no walls, permitting it to expand into the land of the living.
Like floodwaters that begin by encroaching on the low-lying land, snaking along valleys and then, slowly, creeping up hillsides, the graves gained ground, often to the detriment of agriculture, for the besieged owners had no alternative but to sell off strips of land, at other times the graves skirted orchards, wheat fields, threshing floors and cattle pens, always within sight of the houses, and, often, if you like, right next door.
When you are buried in the General Cemetery in addition to the names you already have, you receive a number. Quite arbitrarily these numbers are switched around so that no one is buried where you think. You cannot find the real dead any more than you can find the paper dead.
Saramago follows José as he goes in search of the real person, the unknown women whose record card he has. The resulting adventures show us unexpected aspectof this hesitant, subordinated bureaucrat. The ending is ambiguous, but I interpret it that we cannot know the reality of the living person or the dead body, we can only hope to affect the card in the Central Registry of all the names.