Death with Interruptions [Buy Now]
By José Saramago
Harcourt, 256 pages, $24
In his new book, Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago wryly summarizes his literary voice: "chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas, and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter ..."
All this might sound dull and heavy-handed, and his pages might look more like a chore than a pleasure. Yet when you sit to read Saramago's book, you feel you are cutting through all the unnecessary formalities, and getting to the real meat of the story.
As with Blindness, his most famous book recently made into a movie, Death with Interruptions deals with an extraordinary mass tragedy that affects human society, exploring our nature and a few philosophical questions along the way. This time the premise is that death goes on strike, albeit a temporary one: During the seven-month period in which no one dies, society finds itself grappling with death and, more importantly, with the meaning of life.
Deathlessness, Saramago shows us, is something quite different from blindness: It is a subtle vision of hell. The dying increase steadily while their proportion to the young and youthful becomes increasingly distorted. Soon the only hope for new life is to care, in the space of a sigh, for the eternally dying before one eventually enters their ranks.
Without death, there is never any hope of relief from this horror.
It quickly becomes clear that meaning, whether in religion, morality, philosophy, depends on the existence of death. Without death, as one character observes, "all we have to philosophize about is the void."
In a deathless society, no one knows what is for the best or for the worst, and morality and ethics become blurred and confused. The phrase "family values" is invoked in the interest of maintaining an eternal misery. The desire for a return to normal rhythms of birth and death is denounced as great moral depravity. There are religious implications, too. Characters observe that without death, mankind has no need for God. What they fail to realize is that without death, they are as far from God as they could possibly be.
So Death with Interruptions reads like a horrifying absurdity: When humanity gets what it really wants, it doesn't like it, and limitations, even (or especially) severe ones, are mercies rather than curses. Eventually, human society and its government find themselves wishing for death's return.
Again, they get their wish.
Normalcy eventually returns to the unnamed country of Saramago's novel. At this point, the novel takes a somewhat more ambiguous turn: death herself (for she repeatedly insists on being referred to without a capital D) grapples with her own inability to kill a certain man, and ends up forming a rather interesting and disturbing relationship with him.
Perhaps this tale can be called an exploration of the nature of death. Yet much of it is inventive, imaginative, rather than observational. Death as a protagonist is fascinating and creates in the reader a sense of dread. It seems that death falls in love with the man who has eluded her machinations, and what began as a novel about human nature ends as a morbid romance.
So is Death a good book? It's certainly not a bad one, and by that phrase I don't mean the faint praise that many might assume. I only mean it's puzzling, poetic, insightful, imaginative, unsettling, observant, and yet at times self-contradictory, though with Saramago, who knows?
Perhaps that's the point.