Thursday, December 25, 2014

Completed: All the Names


Well, looks like the combination of Option 2 and a plane ride were a good choice. I have to admit, the very idea of somehow downing 500 pages of Postwar in the last week of the year seemed impossible.

So, this probably has been on my TBR shelf for over ten years! As you know, I was a huge fan of Blindness, and I'm sure I bought this book when it came out---which according to the copyright date, was 1999! As you also know, Jose Saramago is of the "wall-o-text" writing style, but honestly, it's so over the top wacky, that the lack of quotation marks doesn't even bother me. There's no paragraph breaks for dialogue, there's sentences that run for paragraphs, and paragraphs that run for pages.

Another funny aside before I get started. I don't usually annotate in books that I am reading for pleasure. This is tricky, because there's a big push to have kids annotate in school books, and I'm actually pretty ambivalent about it. I think annotating is a highly useful skill, and yet it's one that's difficult to master. Kids either hate it or love it, but the ones who love it just write all over every page and then their annotations aren't helpful. I'm honestly wary of it for middle schoolers, but it's hard to buck the party line, so I do lots of "guided annotations" where I ask kids to look only for very specific things. However, just last week, I read this article by Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books blog. In quite enjoy his writing about how to read, and this came to mind when I sat down to tackle All the Names. 

As I started to read the wall-o-text, I could tell I wasn't paying attention. And Saramago novels are driven more by flights of fancy than they are plot, so I decided to read with a pen in my hand. Kelly! It made a huge difference for me. I was far more attentive to the text, to the sentences and ideas I liked, to noting the strange behavior of the main character, etc. I especially liked Parks' suggestion to "always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive." I mean, why not? For example, at one point the narrator thinks of someone as a "nincompoop" and it's clearly a strange translation error. What a bizarre word! And yet, I woulnd't have paid much attention to it had I not been reading with a pen in my hand. 

As for the story, it's about a town with a Central Registry, in which the births, divorces, and deaths of all the townspeople are recorded. The Registry is staffed by an actual pyramid of desks: 8 clerks in the front row, followed by 4 senior clerks, then 2 deputy Registrars, with The Register, an all-knowing, God-like figure in charge of it all. The main character is one of the lowly clerks, a 50 year old man named Senhor Jose. Jose lives in a house adjacent to the Central Registry and he has a sad and lonely hobby, that of collecting information about the most famous people in the town. One day, while surreptetiously collecting the registry cards of five famous people, Jose accidentally pulls the card of a regular, unknown woman. Jose becomes obsessed with knowing this woman, determined to know more than just her birth and divorce information, and sets out on a strange quest to discover the story of her life. 

Overall, I liked this book. I certainly liked the feeling of being done with the 2014 list, but I also found myself really enjoying the "work" of annotating this book. Not only underlining words and phrases, but also having little arguments with the author in the pages. Rather than saying a whole lot more about the plot, I thought I'd share some of the sentences I annotationed (in bold) and then what I wrote in the margins (in brackets, you know, the square ones. Ha!).

...He went into the stationer's and bought a thick notebook with lined pages, like the ones students use to make notes on their school subjects, believing that they are actually learning them as they do so (41). [Ouch!]

Here's a two parter. Jose has just broken into a school in order to find the school records of the unknown woman. This is the last sentence at the end of the chapter. 
Then, straightening up, he reached in, fumbled for and found the window catch, dear God, the risks burglars take, opened it wide and, grasping the windowsill, his feet frantically scrabbling for non-existent footholds, he managed to lift himself up, raise one leg, then the other, and finally drop through to the other side, as lightly as a leaf falling from a tree (73). [Bullshit! No one drops as lightly as a leaf from a tree!]

So, this is the sentence at the beginning of the next chapter, at the top of a turned page.
Respect for the facts, and simple moral obligation not to offend the credulity of anyone prepared to accept as plausible and coherent the difficulties of such an extraordinary exploit, demand immediate clarification of that last statement: Senhor Jose did not drop as lightly from the windowsill asa  leaf falling from a bough. On the contrary, he fell very heavily, the way an entire tree would fall, when he could perectly easily have lowered himself gradually down from his temporary seat until his feet touched the ground (74). [Ha!]

In other circumstances, it might have occured to Senhor Jose that, just as he had enriched his collection of clippings with copies of the relevant birth certificates, it would also be interesting to add documents regarding attendance and success at school. However, that would never be anything but an impossible dream. It was one thing having the birth certificate in hand in the Central Registry, quite another having to wander the city breaking into schools to find out if so-and-so got an eight or a fifteen in math in the fourth year...And if, in order to get into each of these schools, he had to suffer as much as he had suffered breaking into this one, then it would be better to remain in the peace and quiet of his home, resigned to knowing of the world only what the hands can grasp without actually leaving the house, words, images, illusions (86). [Before Big Data and the Internet! Now it's all possible!] As an aside, there were lots and lots of passages like this that sort of predicted the crazy things that would be possible one day. 

Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things (228). [I agree but others don't. Is this a statement about the meaning of literature?] 

And with that, Kelly, I put a lid on the 2014 list. Honestly, I never thought I would get it done. 


  1. Congratulations! Obviously, I have been way-laid by my unexpected extended visit here, but I am STILL trying to finish before year-end. However, I might have to request some sort of one week extension due to unforeseen circumstances. We can still get the 2015 list together, but I might need an extra few days to wrap up 2014. (We can call this the "Sick Grandma Clause" or something, right?)

    Meanwhile, I enjoyed your annotations -- as you know, I am an extensive page *marker*, but I don't do a ton of writing. The "aggressive" one made me think of the annotation I made in Little, Big that said "What the?" (You can see it again in that post or right here. I will say this -- I *never* use a pen when I write in books (only a pencil). How was that?

  2. IT WAS SO HARD FOR ME! But I was desperate, on a plane, and could only find a pen. You know I like a pristine book, so the pen thing was *killing* me. But I kept telling myself it was for *science* and so I felt better about it. Hah!

    I completely agree to the sick Grandma clause! I was lollygagging around at my in-laws and read four books, and I know how lucky that is! Take all the time you need.