February 21, 2005
José Saramago: All The Names

José Saramago is a writer that has not only won a Nobel Prize, he's generally acknowledged as having been a good choice (something that seems pretty rare) - a typical comment from one of the blurbs in the front of All the Names: "In the case of the Portuguese writer José Saramago, the Nobel Committee got it right for once." Having read several of his books now, I'd definitely agree with the notion that he was deserving of the prize (and the greater recognition it brought him, there's no way I would know of him otherwise). All the Names is the latest book I've read by him, and I would recommend it as a starting point if you haven't read Saramago before. At the bare plot level, it's about a low-level file clerk who becomes obsessed with a woman he knows only as a bare biographical sketch on an index card; this is expanded into an exploration of loneliness, love and identity.

Saramago is one of the most distinctive prose stylists I've ever come across; his narrative style is conversational and direct, enabling him to cover "big" topics without becoming portentous. A longish quote:

Senhor José's decision appeared two days later. Generally speaking, we don't talk about a decision appearing to us, people guard both their identity, however vague it might be, and their authority, what little they may have, and prefer to give the impression that they reflected deeply before taking the final step, that they pondered the pros and cons, that they weighed up the possibilties and the alternatives, and that, after intense mental effort, they finally made a decision. It has to be said that things never happen like that. Obviously it would not enter into anyone's head to eat without feeling hungry, and hunger does not depend on our will, it comes into being of its own accord, the result of objective bodily needs, it is a physical and chemical problem whose solution, in a more or less satisfactory way, will be found in the contents of a plate. Even such a simple act as going down into the street to buy a newspaper presupposes not only a desire to receive news, which, since it is a desire, is necessarily an appetite, the effect of specific physico-chemical activities in the body, albeit of a different nature, that routine act also presupposes, for example, the unconscious certainty, belief or hope that the delivery van was not late or that the newspaper stand is not closed due to illness or to the voluntary absense of the proprietor. Moreover, if we persist in stating that we are the ones who make our decisions, then we would have to begin to explain, to discern, to distinguish, who it is in us who made the decision and who subsequently carried it out, impossible operations by anyone's standards. Strictly speaking, we do not make decisions, decisions make us. The proof can be found in the fact that, though life leads us to carry out the most diverse actions one after the other, we do not preclude each one with a period of reflection, evaluation and calculation, and only then declare ourselves able to decide if we will go out to lunch or buy a newspaper or look for the unknown woman.

Another distinctive element to his writing is how he renders conversations: without quotes, as one continuous sentence, forcing the reader to keep track of who is speaking. For eg, the previous paragraph is followed by:

It is for these reasons that, even if we were to submit him to the closest of cross-examinations, Senhor José would be at a loss to explain how and why the decision made him, let's hear the explanation he would give, All I know is that it was Wednesday night, and I was at home, feeling so tired I couldn't even face having any supper, my head still spinning after all day spent at the top of that wretched ladder, my boss should realize I'm too old for such acrobatics, that I'm not a slip of a boy anymore, not to mention my problem, What problem, I suffer from giddiness, vertigo, fear of falling, whatever you want to call it, You've never complained about it, No, I don't like to complain, That's very considerate of you, go on, Well I was considering getting into bed, no, I tell a lie, I'd just taken off my shoes, when suddenly I made a decision, If you made a decision, do you know why you made it, I don't think I did make it, the decision made me, Normal people make decisions, they're not made by their decisions, Until that Wednesday night that's what I thought too ...

This dialog actually continues for another page and a half in a similar style; it's very compact and once you understand how his flow works, very involving.

Highly recommended!

Posted by Bill Stilwell at February 21, 2005 09:14 PM
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