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25th December
written by Steph

Here's a name for this book: awesome!

As I mentioned in my recent entry regarding obsessive book buying, after our latest trip to McKay’s, we found ourselves in the position of owning three Saramago novels, even though neither of us has ever read any of his writing.  I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this a rather peculiar circumstance, since generally it intuitively makes sense to buy a single book by a given author and read that in order to decide if you want to read anything more by said author.  Clearly something beyond reason motivates me when I’m in bookstores. I decided to rectify this situation by vowing to read a Saramago novel after finishing Fieldwork.  Rather than hemming and hawing over which one to commit to, I selected All The Names off the shelf, using the fact that we’ve owned it the longest as justification.  That it was shorter than both Blindness and The Double was also likely a contributing factor, but let’s not focus on that niggling point. It turns out that All The Names was a really interesting choice to follow up Fieldwork, because the two share somewhat similar overarching plots.  All The Names focuses on Senhor José, who works for the Central Registration Service, cataloging the birth and death certificates of an unknown city’s various denizens.  One day he comes across the file of an unknown woman and from there on out, he becomes obsessed with tracing her life and finding her.  This fixation with discovering her life reminded me quite a lot of the narrator’s investigation into Martiya’s history in Fieldwork.  However, whereas I found Fieldwork tedious at times, I found All The Names to be a powerful and intriguing novel that I read hungrily.  Ostensibly the storyline is far less involved or action-packed in All The Names, and I yet I found it extremely compelling.  Perhaps the sparseness of the overall plot actually allowed Saramago’s writing to really shine and come to the forefront; certainly I found Saramago’s prose to be the more thoughtful of the two. Many of the reviews I read of All The Names mentioned that they found the writing and the style difficult to penetrate, resulting in a slow read.  I agree that at first I found the book to require a lot of concentration, but I soon found myself very caught up in the narrative and actually felt that Saramago’s style facilitated a fluidity in my reading.  He uses paragraph breaks and punctuation sparingly, and never uses quotation marks to denote dialogue; despite these quirks, I never found it difficult to follow conversations.  I suppose in a way his writing has a mild stream-of-consciousness vibe to it, but I felt it all very intuitive and not at all bothersome.  Saramago does have the propensity to break the fourth wall and philosophize, and in this respect I found his writing reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although I found Saramago’s ponderings to be far more organic.  Though equal in intellectual heft to Kundera, I overall enjoyed Saramago more and felt that although he may use fiction to a higher purpose, he never loses sight that he is writing fiction rather than a treatise.  The writing really is beautiful, and I actually turned down the corners of several pages because they contained sentiments or ideas I found particularly profound; I should note that this is a practice I rarely, if ever, engage in. Overall, I really enjoyed All The Names, even though I am certain parts of it went well over my head.  I feel it is the type of book that can be read on many levels, and will hold up well to multiple re-readings.  I still feel there are many depths within this novel that I have yet to plumb, and look forward to revisiting it in the future.  Moreover, I’m glad to know that those other reckless Saramago purchases will not be in vain, as I anticipate further great reads from this author.  He may require a little more effort on the part of the reader than the average author, but the rewards are manifold. Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. 12/26/2008

    Though I worry that I won’t be able to understand it, this novel is now on my “to-read” list. I love all of your reviews, please keep them coming!

  2. w

    I love book this book as well and am rereading it for the pleasure of reentering its beautiful and strange world. And I also picked it up off the shelf without having read any of Saramago’s previous works; so glad I did.

  3. 02/02/2009

    Steph! You captured so perfectly how I felt about Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon. Given that these are two different stories, his writing must be consistently good. I also compared him to Kundera, but with a mixture of Eco. I do think, like you, that Saramago equals Kundera in thought and substance, but that Saramago far surpasses Kundera in style and technique. When are you planning to read Blindness? I’m reading it this year. Plus this one that you reviewed. Plus I think 2 or 3 more by him, ha ha. I get so obsessed with an author when I really really love them. Thanks so much for this review, it’s excellent. 🙂

  4. 02/02/2009

    @ w: I love when I discover a new author to love! Isn’t it an especially nice experience when you go into reading the work without any preconceptions and the writing and the story just take you over? I suspect any of Saramago’s writing will stand up to multiple re-readings.


    @ Claire: I’m not sure when I will read Blindness – I’m not that great about planning my reading well in advance! Normally I just walk over to the shelf and select whatever strikes me at the moment. I will probably read some more Saramago this year… when I do, I’ll certainly post about it here!


    I haven’t read much Eco, to be honest (I gave up about halfway through The Name of the Rose), so I feel less confident comparing Saramago to him, but I think I see what you’re getting at. Of the three authors (Kundera included), I think I prefer Saramago best for stylistic (and to some extent, readability!) reasons. He almost has a little Marquez about him too, doesn’t he?

  5. 02/04/2009

    Yes he does! I’m drawn to all those 4 authors so much. I hope you pick up on The Name of the Rose sometime, as it is really worth the read. I know the first part can be a little challenging, but it really does get better after every page. That’s one of the few books that truly blew me away and I’ve reread it once and still felt the same.

    I used to never plan my readings too.. only this year, as I’m trying to stick to my challenge reading lists.. so far so good, haven’t veered away. It’s taking so much discipline though I don’t know till when I can keep up!

  6. 02/04/2009

    You know, strangely I am one of the few people who seems to have enjoyed the earlier parts of The Name of the Rose! I actually liked the first bit of the novel more than the bits that followed (though again, I stopped at about the 270 page mark, so maybe I wasn’t out of the woods?). If Eco had spent more time on the main mystery and less time on talking about whether it’s ok to laugh or other obscure religious arcana, I would have totally been on board. I just got so lost in all of the historical and philosophical rhetoric!
    As for planning my readings, sometimes I get brainwaves while reading a book as to what I should read next, and other times it takes some mulling over. I do find that if I’ve just finished a longer more involved book that I tend to follow it up with a few shorter reads (and vice versa), but for me, one of the best feelings is when I’m on the cusp of choosing a new book. At that point, the possibilities are endless, and any book is mine for the reading. I love it!

  7. 02/04/2009

    ‘ of the best feelings is when I’m on the cusp of choosing a new book. At that point, the possibilities are endless, and any book is mine for the reading.’

    I feel the same way..

    I did love the beginning of The Name of the Rose.. but near the ending is just really a page turner.. I guess, you’re right, those after-the-beginning parts would slug if you’re not really into his long ‘lectures’.. but also yes, I would think you weren’t out of the woods just yet.. the mystery picks up nearing the end. 🙂

  8. 02/04/2009

    I was still in the woods?!? The last salient thing I remember is them going into the library and getting lost and Adso having hallucinations in one of the rooms with a book. I think I may have read for a while afterward, but that was the last “plot-related” bit I can recall. I had toyed with the idea of just skimming the rest of the book (using the little summaries at that tops of each chapter as a guide), but then in the end I decided even that was more than I felt like doing. Maybe I’ll have to try again one day.

  9. […] on the internet).  Claire is a fellow José Saramago fan, so we’ll be sending her a copy of All The Names to add to her growing collection. Congratulations, Claire!  I would say that I hope you love the […]

  10. […] by any means, but there was something about the other book of his that I’ve read (All the Names, which I talked about here) that I found slightly more captivating and affecting.  The subject matter in Blindness is […]

  11. […] whose entire bibliography I’ll read eventually. Steph of Steph & Tony Investigate! reviewed All the Names before I read her blog, and I discovered her review while perusing their review database. I […]

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