Death with Interruptions

October 2nd, 2008 by EVENTS

by José Saramago, trans. by Margaret Jull Costa

In Death with Interruptions, José Saramago puts forth a death (she signs with a lower-case “d”) with a face and a will. The story begins with a far-reaching premise, simply stated: The following day, no one died. Then, the buildup: the narrator details the national reaction in all its contradictory hues. The headlines don a celebratory tone. Out-of-work funeral directors concoct desperate proposals. Philosophers cavil, while religious figures despair: “Without death, prime minister, without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church…”

As in his earlier novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago’s approach to character is refreshing. Rather than turning his protagonist from an individual into a meta-fictional conundrum, he begins Death with Interruptions with the deconstruction of a larger-than-life concept that a country can no longer take for granted. Saramago is gifted in his reportage; with hilarious specificity he depicts the social destabilization that results.

As weeks pass, crowded hospitals begin to turn away the hopeless cases. Families, faced with forced custody over relatives on the brink of death (perhaps perpetually), begin to sneak their charges into other countries (death carries on as usual elsewhere). Despite societal and governmental disapprobation, the method works beautifully; there is “ no need for them to linger even for a minute, merely the time it takes to die, and that, which has always been the briefest of moments, just a sigh, that’s all, so you can imagine how it would be in this case, a candle that suddenly burns itself out without anyone even having to blow.” This image for life, a candle, is not a new one; the description works because the situation, provoking in its extremity, breathes life into the metaphor.

As in the example above, the novel’s sentences stretch on, with minimal punctuation, often spanning entire pages. This is a technique the author uses in his other novels also. Besides creating a tone that is conversational, it enhances the feeling of following the narrator down an imaginary path—one that transitions an abstraction, such as death, into a character in an alternate reality.

And it is thrilling to experience the fleshing out of death’s peculiar personality. Saramago revitalizes a handful of dusty tropes (the death-head / the femme-fatale / death’s scythe) to create his charming (anti-) heroine. She is an imperfect death; her moves are bold, but she, too, experiences self-doubt:

“Out in the street, death was hailing a taxi and giving the driver the address of the hotel. She didn’t feel at all pleased with herself. She had frightened the kindly lady in the box office, she’d had fun at her expense, and that’s an unforgivable thing to do. People are quite terrified enough of death without her appearing before them with a smile and saying, His, it’s me, the latest version, the familiar version if you like, of that ominous latin tag memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris, and then, as if that weren’t enough, she had been about to skewer another extremely nice, helpful person with the stupid question that the so-called upper classes have the barefaced cheek to ask of those beneath them, Do you know who you’re talking to. No, death is not pleased with her own behavior. She is sure that in her skeletal form she would never have behaved like that, Perhaps it’s because I’ve taken on human form, she thought, these things are catching.”

Eventually, though death takes part in her own creation: the very figurehead of fate goes against her own fate. By the end of the novel, she is no puppet of her creator and she, too, dreams:

“Meanwhile, given that the door of dreams is so easy to push open, and that dreams are so freely available to everyone that we don’t even have to pay a tax on them, death, who has now ceased peering over the cellist’s shoulder, enjoys herself imagining what it would be like to have at her command a battalion of moths all lined up on the desk, with her doing the roll call and giving the orders, go there, find such-and-such a person, show them the death’s head on your back and return…”

Saramago’s Death with Interruptions opens this door of dreams onto a death who is much like her battalion of moths—half shadow, in pieces, yet startlingly, touchingly solid.

Reviewed by Rachel Springer

Death with Interruptions by José Saramago, trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt, 2008
Cloth, 256 pgs, $24.00
ISBN-10 : 0151012741

Posted in Reviews

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