“The following day, no one died” (Saramago, 1). This matter-of-fact statement is the first sentence of Saramago’s exquisitely translated Portuguese novel, Death with Interruptions*. The New Year ushers in an unprecedented phenomenon for a single, unidentified country. Who needs Dick Clark or Ryan Seacrest celebrating your unattainable resolutions when you have something like eternal life to dissuade you from starting a diet?
While the prospect of immortality sounds initially alluring, the pragmatic implications quickly extinguish the citizens’ enthusiasm. What does this mean for religion? It calls into question centuries of resurrection-related dogma and challenges the existence of God as well as His range of omnipotence. What does this mean politically? How do government officials assuage the masses and how do they respond to an uncontrollable new demographic? What does this mean for the economy? In what ways will long-established industries like health-care, funeral homes, and insurance companies reorient themselves now that their public services are practically obsolete?
There are also philosophical repercussions—will lawlessness ensue now that death cannot be held up as a deterrent? The sudden disappearance of death welcomes a contentious debate about the nature of death herself (death has historically been personified as a female and Saramago continues with this gendered pronoun). Death has forgone her duties in this country alone and while humans still stand, plants and animals continue to perish; thus, many people logically deduce that there is hierarchy of deaths separated by taxonomic rank, nation, etc. This visceral reaction of the humans in the story to try and understand and define concepts that lay beyond their grasp and are perhaps unknowable is one of the more interesting threads of the novel. The book is rife with references to what is seemingly “natural”/“normal”, and it upholds a steady unease that humanity bears whenever the order and structure of society is twisted. We eventually adjust, but we have a hard time rollin with the punches.
In their efforts to adapt, the country’s inhabitants get creative. Some defy death by transporting their suffering, catatonic friends and family across the border, where they instantly decease. Noticing an opportunity to exploit, a body-smuggling organization called the “maphia” (a very basic mafia, indeed) surfaces. Their actions open up a can of morality worms and a controversial dispute erupts over whether the process is murder, suicide, or something else altogether. But, as the narrator reminds us, this is what happens “when pragmatism takes up the baton and conducts the orchestra, ignoring what is written in the score” (Saramago, 59).
The musical motif remains consistent throughout the novel, as the second half depicts death taking on a human form and, much to her surprise, falling in love with a cellist. Once her deprivation-of-death experiment takes its toll, she dabbles in other tweaks of the age-old system, one of which leads her to an unexpected obstacle. The cellist, through seemingly no volition of his own, refuses to die. Death is flabbergasted! She does not know what to do because she has been in the business for so long that she can’t even remember who put her in charge; therefore, she has no one to consult. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands, bringing personification to a whole new level in order to personally analyze her preposterous death-defyer. Death portrayed as a sentient being allows Saramago’s skills to really shine. She is fallible to some degree and she expresses feelings of restlessness, intrigue, exhaustion, etc. Saramago invites us to think differently about a typically chilling subject. He penetrates our reflections on a morbid subject without being piercing; the subject is confronted creatively enough to not feel too depressing and as such, he lends something very beautiful to the macabre.
Even more inventively, the writing style reads like a well-organized stream of consciousness. Death is interrupted but Saramago’s sentences certainly are not. One paragraph can run on for pages and a single sentence can often contain a lengthy dialogue. A conversation within an individual sentence is divided by capitalization; one person speaks for a bit and instead of an indention or period, the other person continues with a capital letter marking the beginning of their speech. It took a while to get used to and it is the chief source of complaint among those who do not like the novel; however, I think it is a refreshing take on the traditional grammatical system. His narrative is out of the box, why can’t his syntax be aberrant as well?
Additionally, he develops a communal experience between the narrator and the reader, often using the word “we”. The narrator openly admits to wanting the reader to understand the plotline, so he apologizes when he feels he described something imperfectly and he always strives to go back and explain any narrative holes. It’s okay narrator, I forgive you—you did a good job.
Between the ingenious tale, his unique linguistic structure, and his congenial narrator, Saramago proves he is worthy of the Nobel Prize of Literature that he received. He can sing “Started from the Bottom” and mean it much more than Drake can (please check out that ridiculous music video which makes me doubt my affinity for Drizzy). Saramago was born to a peasant family in 1922 and was forced to drop out of his school at age twelve. When he died, 20,000 people attended his funeral—a bold testament to his impactful writing as well as his influence in political and philosophical circles. Perhaps he writes the way he does because the basic rules of grammar were covered in seventh grade? Most importantly, “Saramago” translates to “wild radish” in Portuguese, which sounds like something Gwenyth Paltrow would name her offspring. Also, radishes—like all vegetables—are gross.
Overall, this book was a delight to read. Not only did it provide a thought-provoking set of perspectives (the relationship of people to death and the relationship of death to people), it’s also pretty funny! Death has some comical conversations with her co-worker scythe and Saramago inputs plenty of irony and relevant puns that are slightly better than these:
Furthermore, I enjoyed his expert employment of the symphonic metaphor. I spotted several parallels between the music that the cellist plays and life’s own orchestra. For instance, death enjoyed her cellist’s tune “because of its tragic brevity, its desperate intensity, and also because of that final cord, like an ellipses left hanging in the air, something yet to be said” (Saramago, 194). And if you find yourself getting bogged up in the impossibility of the story, just remember, “all the many things that have been said about god and about death are nothing but stories, and this is just another one”, so add it to the shelf (Saramago, 162). In sum, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps. It is a novel absolutely worth reading and a book worth thinking about, but it did not stir me to a full five humps.
*Saramago, José. Death with Interruptions. New York: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.