A Tribute to Jose Saramago

The recent death of Jose Saramago should not pass without mention on a blog dedicated to irreal literature. Saramago was a remarkably imaginative writer, not only writing a series of interesting and compelling non-realist novels (such as Cave, Blindness, and Seeing), but also the rather irreal All the names. First published in 1997, this work impressed me above all with how it pointed the reader in so many directions without ever quite allowing us to get to where we thought we might be going. That this indeterminate quality would impress me relates to my feeling that the old dramatic formula of climax, catharsis, and resolution is often a bane of literature, a staple of the dramatic tradition whose incorporation into the realist tradition has contributed to making that genre so very unrealistic, or at least contrived. Above all, All the names illustrates my point because it offers us several false resolutions, or transitory resolutions, which would be all that the great catharses of high drama could offer us if we picked up the action the day after the climax had been reached (yes, Macbeth and wife have been done away with, and their personal drama brought to an end, but already their successors will be scheming with their own plays for power and who can know what kind of leader Malcolm will turn out to be).

Thus, in All the names, we have every right (by our conventions) to expect a real resolution to Senhor José’s obsessive search for the woman, and answers to the various questions it raises, such as: what was motivating him in regards to her? Why did the she kill herself? If Senhor José had somehow inspired the Registrar with his search, don’t we have every right to expect more of his great reform of the system than merely rearranging the cards into a different order? Shouldn’t Senhor José, in the end, either be rewarded or punished for his extraordinary actions, instead of being allowed, by both Registrar and novelist, to just return to his business as usual?

Indeed, we are even frustrated when we try to plaace the novel in a specific tradition, as its protagonist and setting — a lonely clerk (Senhor José) working in a vast bureaucracy — suggest Kafka, and yet the nature of the bureaucracy itself, the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, which holds the record cards for all residents of the unnamed city stretching back endlessly into the past, is more reminiscent of Borges. Even the issue of the reality or irreality of the work remains up in the air, for the physics of the work, for all of its Kafkian suggestions, only enters the realm of the irreal in the remarkable graveyard scene.

And yet it all works quite well, for these are not loose ends left hanging by a writer not able to control his material, but the deliberately induced ambiguity of a writer in remarkable control of his material, and who has led us to a that highly refined sense of non-resolution that is one of the reasons why we can say, whether we want or not, that irrealism can allow us a glimpse of the real that eludes the most specific forms of realism.