All the Names by José Saramago: To Live, Die, and Matter in Anonymity

ALL THE NAMES by José Saramago. 1997. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 238 pp. New York: Harcourt.

ALL THE NAMES by José Saramago. 1997. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 238 pp. New York: Harcourt.

It seems like too much has already been said about the ironic loneliness induced by the curated platforms of social media. Adults who were not born into this duality of existence romanticize a previous world where children's social skills were not allowed to rot away into brightly colored screens. Many of us shun certain technological conveniences, seeking something that will affirm the reality of the tactile world. Articles proliferate on how to combat smartphone addiction and redirect our energies toward a juxtaposed realm of spirituality. Given the frequency of these efforts to temper or reject social media, it seems almost too obvious to draw the parallel between this world and the lonely, anonymous world in José Saramago's All the Names, published in 1997, slightly before the conception of our digital alter-egos. 

Saramago maintains a sense of loneliness and anonymity throughout the novel, refusing quotation or paragraph breaks in dialogue to induce a sense of internal monologue or a lesson on Platonic philosophy. With the exception of the protagonist's delightfully generic name, Senhor José, all the characters remain nameless. This, in spite of Senhor José's occupation as a clerk at the Central Registry, which handles the archival of names, births, deaths, marriage, and divorce. Senhor José is one of us, preoccupied with information which says nothing of who a person is. His hobbies are concerned with assuaging his loneliness by surrounding himself with meaningless snapshots of lives, truly knowing little of others and driven by paranoia of what others think of him. All the Names is a story of our own little world, the individual's endless pursuit of connection and struggle to find reality in the space between digital and analog.

Identity in such a world is fraught with questions of genuineness. In the process of generating snapshots of what we think, do, and experience and then archiving them, the line between originality and reproduction is blurred. We become our simulated selves. We question the reality and originality of our more tangible interactions. We are constantly creating more and more ways to categorize ourselves and find connection or originality in aspects of identity, but something is lost in our pursuits. This is seems to be one of the issues Senhor José grapples with in his journey beyond handwritten record cards into discovery of what it is that cannot be sorted and categorized. In the end, he finds a kind of salvation by embracing that we are all ultimately anonymous in our final resting place, gravemarkers serving only as tools for those who are alive to go on in their archiving and categorizing, meaningless to those who lay beneath them. 

Just as Senhor José is constantly adjacent to the archives of death in his employment at the Central Registry, we live in a digital burial ground of quickly forgotten news and memorialized facebook pages. They are kept for posterity. They are still forgotten and lost into their own mountains of similarly archived information. It is in these dunes of information that an interesting dialectic arises: that in context of the vast realms of those who live and have lived we are insignificant, and yet that we matter, are unique, and such archives as the ones posterity has produced and we generate for ourselves are generated because we do matter. There is a kind of random determinism to mattering--I think of a certain scene in Watchmen in which Dr. Manhattan explains to Laurie Jupiter how remarkable it is that a person makes it into existence, finds another person who also managed to arrive from chaos into form, and finds a sense of meaning, mattering, in that form. Although Senhor José stumbles onto the card of the unknown woman he seeks to know by chance, and although he never truly meets her, his journey to know her is a bold proclamation that in spite of all anonymity and chaotic happenstances, this person matters, and in turn she makes me matter. 

Our efforts toward connection and truly knowing others are often turned back on ourselves in an inversion of subject and object. Regardless of how much data we have accumulated on an individual, how many conversations are had, how many moments are shared, we can never truly know another person. Magnitudes of joy and pain cannot be entirely understood but are instead seen through the lens of our own sensations. Even in the tangible realm, there is always a filter which prevents us from being entirely conscious of who another person is. Whether consciously or unconsciously, words are always left unspoken. We are left to interpolate the gaps in information and fill it with parts of ourselves, our own experiences. It is as if every other person we interact with is in some way a simulation of a part of our own selves. In turn, we ingest aspects of others into our identities, creating simulations of these simulated self-projections. Ultimately, our journey to alleviate loneliness is truly a journey to know and create our own sense of self. This is the journey Senhor José truly undertakes, in which he himself is transformed by his search for connection while the object of his pursuit remains unaware in life and in death. 

Senhor José's transformation is one from fragile trepidation to unabashed boldness, strongly mirrored by his departure from the certain walls of repetitious archival to the danger of the world outside the Central Registry, where it storms and there are possibilities of falls, illness, and terrifying emotion. He subconsciously seeks the process of danger and chance, even when outcomes are less secure. He ultimately desires to be free from safety, categories, and convenience. The battle between our own dual planes of existence is certainly similar. The responses to this dichotomy are variant: we curate our spheres of awareness into self-affirming dialogues, we seek companionship among realms of categorized shared experiences, and we accumulate objects which become intertwined with our sense of self. Alternatively, we attempt to reject the process of filtering ourselves through social media, we retreat from the part of ourselves that exists on a simulated plane, and we take into our own hands small-scale production of goods and associate ourselves with the process rather than the object. All of these courses of action are taken with the goal of becoming a living, significant person in this world who is a little less lonely.

Katherine Beaman