Podcast: Jose Saramago – All the Names


I was always working steady
But I never called it art
I got my shit together
Meeting Christ and reading Marx

Hello, and welcome to the Radio of Resistance. I am your host, Thanh Dinh. And from the inability to have a more refreshing, welcoming opening line, I, as you may or may not have noticed, used the same pattern from the previous episode.

And to the keen ears, Yes, it’s Leonard Cohen’s song, “Happens to the Heart,” from his most recent posthumous album, “Thanks for the Dance.”

I should really dissect the album, giving how much I am obsessed with it. But as it happens, I spend too little time on talking about Mr. Cohen on his episode. After all, did I ever want to?

But don’t let the quotes fool you. And after today’s episode, you might see that the above quotes work extremely well for this week’s talk on Jose Saramago’s All the Names.

So, All the Names. Among the literary professional readers and watchers, the title brings about a somewhat foggy memory. The name of the author is certainly familiar, yes. But the title, the title sounds strange. Among the casual readers, perhaps there is a better chance of recognizing it. Something along the line of, Yeah, of course I had read that, while you try to push Jose Saramago’s more notable work, “Blindness,” under the blanket.

To those who have never read it, the book is indeed about all the names, all the lives, and standing in the middle of it is Senhor Jose, who is always workind steady but never call it arts. The Senhor Jose who defy the rules and the system. The Senhor Jose whose name is never remembered. The Senhor Jose who has lived through more than 2/3 of his life, if he is unlucky, or ½ of his life, if he is lucky than most of us, and decided that, Oh, it is time to leave or live and die this way.

To those who have read it, I’m sorry if the above description doesn’t fit with your impression of the book. After all, who am I to judge? Is the book a hit? Was it ever? So is it a flop? Sir, if it was a flop, Jose Saramago will not bear the title of Nobel Prize Winner for Literature.

Despite Milan Kundera’s warning, Must a book always about its author, I still maintain my right to suspect that, Yes, indeed, All the Names carry a more personal note to Mr. Jose Saramago than his otherwise more famous works. Perhaps because the character’s name is also Jose. Perhaps because the internal dialogues of Senhor Jose reviews too much about a life of rebellion. Or, perhaps because Senhor Jose is far more relatable to a human beings. A fictional character, with a will to live, and not only live in its essential sense, but he takes living up a further extend.

A revolve against the absurd. A revolve against the routine daily tasks of a clerk, who has never been put up for a promotion despite all the efforts he had committed to it. A revolve to die and a revolve to be reborn.

Yes, in answering the question of whether to leave or to live and die this way, he chose to leave.

I often figure it to be a strange coincidence, when Mr. Jose builds within his novel “All the Name” a world of ceiling-high shelves, separated only by the world of the living and the darker world of the dying. A world where perfection is achieved; from a perfect hierarchy of clerks and Registrar, to the perfect, symmetrical physical settings of that perfect hierarchy. A world where the only way out is simple: to disobey. To revolve. To fight. To take down the absolute power of the force that is ruling us. To strip off each and every layer of that power, and see for the first time in our lives, who we really are.

Often times, who we really are will not match who we want to be. And almost always, who we really are will never come close to who the world perceives us to be.

And that is totally alright. As my mother, and her ancestors, says, The world won’t pay you a dime when you die. That is true with Senhor Jose. Though he did receive salary from the Central Registry of Birth and Death, he finds, as he sees himself for the first time through the thin sheet of the unknown woman, who he really is far more expensive than the Central Registry of Birth and Death can ever afford.

To the point that Senhor Jose follows the Adrianne’s thread at the expense of his health. To the point of catching the flu and take a day off from his perfect attendance record. To the point of seeing himself in the mirror and says:

“It doesn’t even look like me, he thought, and yet he had probably never looked more like himself.”

And thus, of course, is everything that matters.

In an internal dialogue with himself, Senhor Jose said,

“That seems absurd to me, It is absurd, but it’s about time I did something absurd in my life.”

Now, this would be the perfect time to bring my limited knowledge of existentialism and my one-sided passion for Albert Camus and his school of philosophy to burst out of the cage and present itself here in the form of a quote or a short analysis. Something along the line of, Yes, the absurd is the inspiration of all.

And indeed it is. The passion to live, knowing that living means suffering, is absurd passion. The passion to define gods – all kind of gods, from all religion – to be the purest of being, and yet begging them for humanity’s desires, is an absurd passion.

And who is to say that Senhor Jose, who knows that he can’t beat the system, yet keeps on cheating it, trampling upon it, resisting it to be who he really is at the age of 50, is not an absurd one?

My beloved, the only actor who can make me cry with a shrug of his shoulders, a turn of his head, a slow blink, said: It is hard to live and at the same time, be safe.

He said the word safe as his lips curled up into a drowsy smile, with a tiniest glaze formed up on his eyes, and the voice – the gentlest of voice – broke a little. Yes, sir, I said safe in its most literal and metaphorical senses. No, sir, I am not lonely.

Unlike Senhor Jose, who chose to venture out in the night, defeated the system, and followed his own Adrianne’s thread to leave the jail of the Central Registry, my unknown lover chose to stay. He chose to live and die this way.

You know, I used to feel lonely, he said, I know what lonely meant. And after a while, just like everything else, you got used to it.

I never know of a sadder phrase. After a while, just like everything else, you got used to it. To accomodate. To compromise. To live and at the same time, be safe.

I never meant to put it in a way that my beloved is a coward. And if you think so, you will be wrong in so many ways. No, he was, and forever will be, a fighter. A fighter who tried to beat the system and failed. A fighter who, in spite of failing, got up and tried again. A fighter who has been to many wars, who sees his effort rolling down the slope, takes a breath and walks down, starting his journey all over again.

He is a little bit like Sisyphus. There will be no tragedy like the life of Sisyphus. And there will be no heroes who are as strong as him.

So guess what? I am reaching the point where, just like many previous episodes, I will say that, There’s no wrong choice.

Whether it’s Senhor Jose who chose to leave, my beloved actor who chose to live and die this way, or Sisyphus who takes on his torment without any complaint – the torment of seeing his hopes die – there are none of us who can be other worldly enough to say who is wrong and who is right.

As Albert Camus said, One must imagines that Sisyphus is happy.

And more often than not, I would like to imagine that Thành Lộc is happy. That in his solitude – I don’t call it loneliness, because people always connect that word with some sad innuendoes and connotation – in his solitude, Thành Lộc, like Sisyphus, finds in him a hero, fighting against gods’ punishment, and be happy in the fight.

Talking about Thành Lộc requires talking about his acting. Of course, to many of my listeners, the name does not ring any bells, not even the slightest chime. But Thành Lộc constitutes my childhood and even more, a cathedral of arts whose influence is everywhere in my stories. I have watched many of his dramas, and if God allows it, I hope to watch many, many more.

But the only scene ingrained in my mind is forever of the first drama I watched 10 years ago in the theater. An ending scene of a male prostitute, who, due to his love for the one he considers his brother, his family, agrees to seduce another man. As the male prostitute gives the other character what he wants, he says, And this will be the end of my debt to you. A breaking of the voice. A shrug of the shoulders. A pair of eyes, glistening, drowning in sadness and darkness. A hope that dies too quickly. A love story that hasn’t even find a glimmer of chance to bloom yet.

And the male prostitute walks away. The small shoulders under the dim lighting of the ending scene shakes a little when his lover says, Wait.

What else do you want, the male prostitute says.

Anh thương em.

To my listeners who have never heard a word of Vietnamese before, I long to have the opportunity to translate to you how heartbroken those words meant.

Contrary to many translations, “thương” does not simply signify love. “Thương” is when you consider the other person pititful, but that person does not want your pity. “Thương” is when you love the other person like any other ordinary people will love, but the fall is too hard and the wounds are too deep. “Thương” is when you have never done anything wrong, and one day love, just like any other days, decide to betray you.

Anh thương em. Because I know I hurt you far too deep and there will be no recovery from that. Anh thương em. Because I want, so ardently, to say that it was never my intention to hurt you. Anh thương em. Because I know my words mean nothing to you, but somewhere in my broken heart, ridden with blood and open scars, I want you to stay.

Anh thương em, because I know that no matter what I do, you will leave anyways.

And the moment the back of the prostitute was shone upon by the dim light of the theatre, the light which was slowly fading away as he bowed his head, a shaking hand on the door, a hand in his pants’ pocket – in that precise moment, seeing the disappearing broad shoulders, I finally understood what solitude truly means.

You know, my dear listeners, this is quite a depressing and personal episode. I guess when we are in our own world of solitude and despair, we turn to whatever that can keep us going. From the clacking of the pots and pans, to the sound of the wind hitting the wind chime on a summer night. The suffering of humans in the consistency of living, breathing, and waking up every day, it will not ends. So like how Albert Camus refers to the case of Sisyphus. One must imagine one is happy.

To conclude this episode, I will read to you the song that inspired one of my novel. A Vietnamese song, of course, because my love for my country never ends. Here is a recital of Dù Tình Yêu Đã Mất – And Even If Love Was Lost:

And even if love was lost,

I beg for your passionate kiss once only,

Like how we were in the old days, drowned with the memories

Of separating days, as I watch you leave.

And even if love was lost,

I beg to hold onto the agony,

Watching you leave, knowing in my heart,

That we will be apart, forever be apart.

You, embracing another stranger, you have forgotten

Our promises. Leaving me nothing besides sufferings.

And even if our torn love was lost,

Never to be returned,

I still wish for you to be happy with someone who will love you,

Forever love you,

As I have loved you.

And my life is filled with sorrow,

A life of toil, traveling light across the strange countries,

You, embracing another stranger, you have forgotten

Our promises. Leaving me nothing besides sufferings.

And I still love you, as I have always loved you.

For updates, stories, and poems, you can follow my Facebook page, The Bipolar Psyche’s Books, or follow my blog at tasteofsmallthings.com. If you have a story to tell – it doesn’t need to be amazing, awe-inspiring, or anything – please kindly submit it to the email address in the podcast’s description.

Thank you for listening. This is Thanh Dinh. And you are listening to the Radio of Resistance.

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