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.

My Thoughts:

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago (cover)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!

Your Turn!

Have you ever read a book that was so different it actually worked? Do you have a favorite author whose style is extremely unique?

Join the Conversation


  1. I dno’t think I gave this one a fair enough chance. I only read a couple pages but I wasn’t enthralled so I just gave it up. I’m sure I’ll try it – or another by Saramago – again one day when I’m in the mood. He’s another author I’ve thought perhaps I should listen to one of his books instead of read.

    1. Oh, I wonder what his books would be like on audio?? I think it would depend even more than usual on the narrator. If you try one, I’d love to know what you think!

  2. What a fascinating concept–the death of death-but I think the style would get to me. I can deal with stylized writing–I really dug Nothing Like the Sun–but tossing some old standbys of grammar out the window would just bug me. I’m glad you enjoyed it, though!

    1. I’m usually like you. Quotes are huge for me — I think that if you are writing out a conversation, you should use quotation marks, period. So I was kind of surprised when I found myself so enamored of Saramago’s style. I’ve not read Nothing Like the Sun, but I’ll have to check it out!

  3. I haven’t read any Saramago yet, but this sounds like a fun place to start. 🙂

    I have a long history of loving experimental fiction! Most recently, I adored White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi.

    1. I’ve heard Blindness is really good, too! Death with Interruptions is shorter, though, so I started with that one 🙂

      I haven’t read much experimental fiction; it’s always kind of scared me! I’ll have to look into White is for Witching. I like the title!

  4. I’m a massive Saramago fan, but I haven’t read this one yet. I’m sure I’ll love this one, but I want to save it – especially now I know there are never going to be any more Saramago books 🙁

    My favourite is Blindness whicj I loved for its emotional impact, but it sounds as though this book is just as clever as The Double. I hope that you enjoy reading many more Saramago books in the future 🙂

    1. I have Blindness on my shelf for my next Saramago! I completely understand wanting to save it. When you do decide to dig in, enjoy 🙂

  5. I love, love, LOVE me some Saramago. So far I’ve only read two of his books, but they were both so interesting and arresting. I was initially worried I might find his writing style a bit difficult to digest due to its lack of punctuation and the like, so I was really pleased to find it so accessible. I love how lyrical his writing is, and I think he always picks such interesting premises to explore!

    1. I, too, worried about his style being inaccessible and was pleasantly surprised! Lyrical is a great word for Saramago’s writing. I found myself constantly delighted by what I read. I can’t wait to read more!

  6. I have heard amazing things about Saramago and have a couple of his books on my shelf awaiting me. It sounds like I need to grab this one as well, as the synopsis sounds so very intriguing to me. It also doesn’t hurt that Saramago is known to wield words very powerfully. Thanks for the excellent review. I will definitely be adding this one to my list!

    1. Saramago is, indeed, a powerful wielder of words! I’ve never read anything quite like him. Death with Interruptions is shorter than some of his others, which I think made it a good place to start. I hope you enjoy whichever you start with!

  7. I’ve heard so much about Saramago (mostly “Blindness”) and feel like I need to give him a try. Everyone says his stuff is unique and different but so worthwhile. Glad to hear that his “loose” approach to punctuation didn’t cause you too many problems.

    1. I have a feeling he’s one of those authors whose style either works for you or doesn’t. I’d absolutely recommend trying something — I know I’m so glad I did!

  8. I have only read Blindness, a fantastic book, but mean to read more Saramago and your post reminds me why! I think of him as a classic author and he is definitely on my list for the upcoming year!

    ~ Amy

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