The resonant themes of identity and autonomy are examined with keen precision and rich humor in the Portuguese Nobel laureate’s most recent (1997) fiction, a novel that compares very interestingly with Saramago’s fascinating The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1997).
The unprepossessing Senhor José, a middle-aged bachelor, works as a clerk in a nameless large city’s Central Registry (of Births, Marriages, and Deaths)—an Orwellian maze whose largest section is eternally extended backward, to accommodate the records of the ever-increasing ranks of the deceased. Senhor José lives in a small house literally connected to the Registry’s main building, and meekly devotes himself to his occupation—while also surreptitiously working on his private collection, which documents the lives of miscellaneous celebrities. Allegory rears its head (as it so often does in this writer’s books) when a chance fascination with an unknown woman whose card he discovers sends him on an odyssey of discovery: a journey that lures the timid civil servant dangerously far out of his shell, involves him in forgery, burglary, and other misdeeds, while simultaneously risking his health (if not his life), and courts the displeasure of the all-knowing, omnipotent Registrar—who, in the dazzling finale, will determine Senhor José’s fate. Saramago tells his (surprisingly dramatic) story in a style featuring his characteristic run-on sentences and pages-long paragraphs, frequently interpolating authorial commentary that positively glitters with summary concision and compassionate irony. And Senhor José is unforgettably characterized as both a Thurber-like milquetoast and a moral and intellectual hero who pits himself against the tide of regimentation and anonymity that steadily engulfs him. Indeed, when he enters the labyrinthine “archive of the dead,” he earns the implicit comparisons to Theseus confronting the Minotaur, or Aeneas in the Underworld.
Mischievous, saturnine, and commandingly eloquent fiction.