What torments people have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes to become embroiled in mad adventures.
—José Saramago, All the Names, (88)
Anyone who is familiar with the writing of José Saramago will know that he has a distinct style and tone. All the same, as I read All the Names I was struck by the very strong similarity to a children’s book of his that I read to my youngest son a few years back, The Tale of the Unknown Island. The stories are of course different, but the phrasing and word choice is very like. I became convinced that they must have been written in proximity to each other and, how exciting! I was right—as it turns out, Saramago wrote both stories in the same year—1997.
That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought (52)
Saramaga eschews quotation marks altogether, marking a change of speaker by a comma and a mid-sentence capital letter. His prose come practically paragraph-free (a typesetter’s dream my good friend and typesetter tells me—now that I think of it, he is the one who suggested I read this book—we share a love of Saramago). Saramago’s books take place in the interior of his character’s minds and standard punctuation has no place there. Once you are in his books there is an undisturbed flow to it all—you are next to the narrator, falling in love with his patient, wry, and kind voice.
“It is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled paths of the mind at such speeds that, afterwards, it cannot recognise those paths, let alone find them again” (12).
Both The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names deal with the same subject in the same way. In All the Names the protagonist is a man named José. He works in the kafka-esque atmosphere of the register’s office in all its magisterial pettiness and labyrinthical paper trails. Rather than embarking on an escapade to the unknown island, José is led, by himself—by the unfathomable mystery of his own mind’s logic— on an investigative search for the unknown woman. Why? he hardly knows. Why search for the unknown island when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? Why find the unknown woman when her existence is merely a clerical matter?
The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad (55).
Thusly, José conducts conversations with himself throughout the story. The Tale of the Unknown Island is of course a tale about Love. Love is the unknown island that others scoff at and hold snide doubts about its very existence. The unknown woman of All the Names is the object and subject of Love. Saramago touches on the universal quality of Love that strikes like lightening individually. All the names of the unknown hoards of people deserve, want, and need Love. To deny that fact is to perform a depraved sort of deletion. Some delete themselves. And then, institutions, even those of record keeping—in their maniacal effort to keep track of individuals—erase the actual individual.
It doesn’t seem a very good rule in life to let yourself be guided by chance, Regardless of whether it’s a good rule or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it was chance that put that card in his hands, And what if the woman is the same one, If she is, then that was what chance offered, With no further consequences, Who are we to speak of consequences, when out of the interminable line of consequences that come marching ceaselessly towards us we can only ever distinguish the first (34)
In my lunch hour at my summer internship at the Met this past week, I happened upon one of the smaller shows that is currently on exhibit, About Face: Human Expression on Paper. The photo above is part of the exhibit. The photograph was taken by Hugh Welch Diamond in the mid-1800s. It is of a patient of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. At the time it was thought that insanity somehow presented itself in the physiognomy of the face and all manner of strange experiments, sometimes involving electrodes applied to various muscles of the face, were rather callously conducted. I find the photograph to be quite beautiful. Given the early-photgraphic era when it was taken, it is perhaps strange that she has a smile on her face, but if we didn’t know she was in an asylum one could invent entirely different circumstances around her life. She is an unknown woman to me. But the connection that crosses the decades from the smile on her lips to mine is what makes us all feel alive to one another—it is Love writ large. That smile is not unknown to me. One of the most meaningful qualities of art and literature is that it fosters a feeling of human connections to one another. Art stands witness to our longing to connect and for not deleting ourselves or our desire to Love. For the briefest moment I know and love that unknown woman. And, I know that I too am the unknown woman.
* title from p. 13: “it would not be the first time in the history of the deleatur that this had happened.” Deleatur, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the proofreader’s mark that looks like a drunken Y and is from the Latin meaning “let it be deleted.”