All the Names

By Ron Makleff posted

All the Names

Saramago, José. All the Names. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. San Diego: Harcourt, 2001 [1997].

I find no greater pleasure in academic life than reading a work of prose which captures the essence of an argument or topic I have researched empirically. José Saramago’s All the Names provided just such a pleasure, and has the added advantage of interrogating the place which will be at the center of most of our experiences during this research year: the archive.

At the book’s center is a clerk (Senhor José) at the Central Registry of an unnamed town. The Central Registry is Saramago’s manifestation of the archival essence: it boasts a strict workplace hierarchy but endless disorder, an unending series of impossibly-tall shelves, a colony of paper-devouring mice, undiscovered dark corners where researchers go lost, metric tons of dust and – as the title suggests – all the names of those living and dead.

The richness of Saramago’s detail is stunning, especially on the organization of the Registry’s files; which files are most often used; how the index cards correspond to the files; how often the clerks must use the precarious ladder used to reach the more remote files; the continual search for more space; the way the Archive of the Dead and the Archive of the Living ought to be separate but inevitably intermingle.

Maybe the most striking lesson of Saramago’s archive is more metaphysical, however: the archive is its own universe, a space in which the real world is not reflected but imperfectly replicated. For those whose lives revolve around the papers and often even for the people whose lives are recorded in the files of the archive, it is a parallel universe which has real power, is real on its own accord.

The book begins as Senhor José’s decades-long routine is coming unraveled. He is a single man past his prime but far from retirement, and while romance is suggested at certain junctures, has neither a love life nor any family or friends. He is the last clerk still living in a series of small cottages for staff abutting the Central Registry. (Saramago’s understanding of archival architecture’s short-sightedness is comically accurate here – as the amount of paper grows and grows, the archive’s back wall is repeatedly torn down and moved further back to allow more room for shelving; the history of European archives is replete with such stories dating at least as far back as the thirteenth century). Being the last, Senhor José is also left with tantalizing access to the workspace and its files after hours. A once-innocent vice of collecting newspaper clippings on celebrities neatly organized in his closet morphs into nighttime forays into the files. So the world of the Central Registry after his colleagues have gone home at night becomes the focus of his inner life.

One night an inner monologue sweeps him up: enter the Central Registry and supplement your celebrity files with real state-sanctioned facts, says a voice: where they were born, how many children, divorced? The temptation is too great, and once José has spent one night scurrying around the Central Registry pulling out index cards, searching out and copying files, he is hooked. Returning home through the forbidden door after his first plunder of the archive, he shudders with exhaustion: he feels he has “committed a sin against the esprit de corps of the civil service” (14). But the urge was too great: “what prevailed was the pride and satisfaction he felt at now knowing everything, that was the word he used, Everything” (15).

Another night, in a rush, he accidentally pulls the index card not of a celebrity but of a modest teacher. The very existence of this anonymous woman’s index card and file are a revelation for José, awakening his own sense of personhood and agency. Without ever understanding quite why, his life is transformed: he skips work for the first time in decades, hoping to track the woman down during working hours. This search is the primary plot of All the Names, which traces José’s burgeoning obsession, the criminal acts it drives him to, and the ease with which he uses the name of the State to pursue his own personal ends.

When the archive doesn’t supply enough information on his mystery woman, Senhor José ventures into the outside world. He spends an entire weekend sorting through her yearly photos in the dusty attic of her childhood school (which he has clumsily broken into), and befriends the woman’s Godmother – all with the help of an official-looking letter of authorization he has forged. It reads: “In the name of the authority conferred on me and which, under oath, I uphold, apply and defend, I, as Registrar of the Central Registry, declare to all those, be they civil or military, private or public, who might see, read and examine this letter written and signed by my own hand, that Senhor so-and-so, a clerk in my service and in the service of the Central Registry which I direct, govern and administer, has received directly from me the order and commission to find out and investigate everything regarding the life, past, present and future, of so-and-so….” (43).

The wording of this forged letter could be taken directly from a sixteenth-century letter of commission granting a functionary authorities. It is strikingly reminiscent of the ritual involved in the archival essence. This ritual element is best expressed in Saramago’s description of the keys to the archive. The original key, a baroque work of art and a “physical symbol of authority,” is in the possession of the Registrar who, however, “apparently never used it, either because of the weight and complexity of the design, which made it awkward to carry around, or because, according to some unwritten hierarchical protocol, in effect since the remotest of times, he always had to be the last to enter the building” (116). Here again Saramago has hit on crucial elements of the European history of archives. First, there is a tendency recognized repeatedly in the history of (especially urban) documentary practice: keep the originals of important charters (for example) hidden away to safely retain their symbolic and communal relevance; meanwhile create copies of them for more everyday use. Second is the implied power of the sovereign: because of the assumed possession of the key by the Registrar, he has never deigned to use it – this would be against protocol – but is nevertheless empowered by it. This implied power is often the primary power archives provide to states.  

Senhor José’s search for the woman continues until one night in the archive he discovers her index card has disappeared and her file moved to the Archive of the Dead. A visit to the cemetery reveals nothing of her fate except that a mysterious shepherd has for years been rearranging the temporary headstones above freshly-buried bodies. The shepherd is therefore causing the comprehensive mis-registration of graves; even worse, the State has no way of knowing its own mistake. Again the State’s effort to encapsulate the outside world within the archive is frustrated. By the end of their encounter, José the frustrated clerk is willing to admit the shepherd has a point: it makes sense to him that not only can the archive never know Everything, whatever is in it might itself be completely false.

Yet the mistakes of the archive are not innocent; again, they have real power. Senhor José soon discovers that own more or less innocent intentions in finding the archival woman have wrought consequences in the outside world. Within a matter of weeks, his obsession has brought such havoc into the unnamed teacher’s life – the break-in at her school, the interviews with her Godmother, the inquiries at her old apartment – that she [spoiler alert] takes her own life. There being no indication of her reasons for committing suicide nor of the timing, but hints that José’s nosing about have come to her attention, making her fear the State was after her for something in her past. She preferred to die rather than be caught up in the web which José was unwittingly spinning for her [end spoiler alert]. This is the power of the state and the danger of information in its hands.

This logic of surveillance, in the end, is at the core of Saramago’s archival essence. In the final days of the story Senhor José has thrown caution to the wind, skipping work on paltry excuses to discover the woman’s fate. He is sure he will be discovered and fired from his position. On the brink, the Registrar reveals to him the view from the other end of the hierarchy: what do the higher-ups keep themselves busy with as the Central Registry’s clerks do all the work? For generations, the Registrar’s primary occupation has been spying on his own employees. He has followed José’s every move and – shockingly – is rooting for him. When he hears of the woman’s fate, the Registrar suggests that José create a new index card for her, allowing her to live on at least in their archival universe: “Make up a new card for this woman, the same as the old one, with all the correct information, but without a date for her death…Then go and put it in the archive of the living, as if she hadn’t died” (238).

As we settle into our actual archives, we’d do well to keep Saramago’s conceptual archive in mind. Its employees may or may not enjoy midnight trysts between the shelves and may or may not fall in love with an index card. Its Director may or may not be busily spying on his underlings and its registration of graves may or may not have been foiled by the tricks of an anarchist shepherd. But it certainly is a place where documents are not only stored but actually given meaning. And it is certainly not a place isolated from the outside world; rather, the archive is constantly and imperceptibly shaping the world around it.