I’d wanted to read Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago ever since I heard about the premise a few years ago. When I found a used copy on the Half Price Books clearance shelves, I snatched it up.
About the Book:
“The following day, no one died.” (p.1)
Thus begins Death with Interruptions, written by Jose Saramago and translated by Margaret Jull Costa. It goes on:
“This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.” (p.1)
At first the apparent death of death seems like a cause for celebration. Yet as more and more institutions–nursing homes, hospitals, funeral parlors, insurance companies, churches–are affected, the weight of this new deathless state becomes increasingly difficult to bear. Why has death ceased to occur? What are the implications for the structure of society as we know it? Saramago tackles these questions and more as this incredibly unique and creative tale unfolds.
I am in love with this book. I want to read everything else Saramago has ever written, because I suspect that at least a few of his other novels must be as clever as Death with Interruptions. It is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, in both plot and writing style.
I’ll begin with the plot. The first half of the book is focused on society at large in the nameless, death-free country. I loved seeing the implications Saramago imagined for the various sectors of society–things I’d never have thought of. I was fascinated to see what problem would pop up next and how the affected parties would solve it. And then, mid novel, there is a turning point, when a powerful man receives a mysterious violet envelope. Suddenly the focus shrinks down to the level of a single person. It almost seems like a different novel altogether, except that the mystery that runs through both halves is the same. I had no inkling of where the story would go, but I greatly enjoyed finding out.
Then there is the writing. Saramago’s style is distinct, and I am quite impressed with how Margaret Jull Costa managed to translate it. Saramago intersperses short, ordinary sentences with sentences that would make Virginia Woolf’s longest appear concise. His paragraph breaks are few; his dialogue shuns quotation marks and even line breaks, opting for simple commas instead. Here’s a sample, a conversation between the cardinal and the prime minister:
“Not half an hour had passed when, sitting now in the official car taking him home, he received a call from the cardinal, Good evening, prime minister, Good evening, your eminence, Prime minister, I’m phoning to tell you that I feel profoundly shocked, Oh, so do I, your eminence, it’s an extremely grave situation, the gravest situation the country has ever had to confront, That’s not what I mean, What do you mean, your eminence…” (p. 9-10)
And so the conversation continues for four more paragraph-and period-less pages. I thought it would be hard to follow, yet somehow Saramago makes it clear who is speaking. There were odd moments when I found myself thinking that this uninterrupted style might actually mirror more accurately the flow of conversation.
There is also a sort of subtle humor that often surfaces in Saramago’s phrasing, such as this one, which references the flaw in a politician’s otherwise brilliant plan:
“It was against this stone, suddenly thrown into the middle of the road, that the interior minister’s strategy stubbed its toe, causing serious damage to the dignity of state and government. Caught between a rock and a hard place, between scylla and charybdis, between the devil and the deep blue sea, he rushed to consult the prime minister about this unexpected gordian knot.” (p. 52-53)
I also loved how once in a while a first person plural narrator would stick its head (their heads?) into the story to clarify some point. For instance, having related an anecdote concerning a family that seems rather irrelevant to the overall story, the narrator comments:
“We are more aware than anyone how unimportant it must seem this account of the relationships in a family of country folk whom we will probably never see again, but it seemed to us wrong, even from a purely technical, narratorial point of view, to dismiss in two lines the very people who will be the protagonists of one of the most dramatic episodes in this true, yet untrue story about death and her vagaries. So there they stay.” (p. 35)
These occasional intrusions didn’t bother me in the least; rather, they added to the delight with which I read this quirky, odd novel.
As for themes, there is much said in Death with Interruptions about death (as you might have guessed), but also about love, as well as sharp insight into our natures as human beings. I’d say my comments, though, are quite long enough at this point, so I will leave you to explore those themes yourself. Needless to say, I plan to work another of Saramago’s novels into my reading schedule soon!
Have you ever read a book that was so different it actually worked? Do you have a favorite author whose style is extremely unique?