DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS by José Saramago, Translation from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa ( New York: Harcourt, Oct.6th, 2008)
Review by Nancy Yanes Hoffman, THE WRITING DOCTOR, at www.writingdoctor.typepad.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 585-385-1515.
The Maestro of What-If is at it again. With his new novel, DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS, Jose Saramago, Nobel Laureate for literature, repeatedly asks “What if?” Just as he has in many of his previous works, he upsets the ostensibly sturdy apple carts holding the structured myths governing our lives and our behavior.
BLINDNESS, Saramago's novel on which the newly released film is based, shows what happens when an epidemic of white blindness besets an unnamed town, implicitly asking what it means to see—and not to see. In DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS, Saramago asks what happens if everyone stopped dying. For on New Year’s Day, the ten million dwellers in an unnamed land find that death is no more.
The novel begins in media res with:
“The following day, no one died. 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 human history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon having occurred…New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities.”
Death has stopped but dying has not:
“There was, however, no shortage of blood. ..One thing was clear, today, the victims refused to die...It was already late afternoon when the rumor began to spread that, since the beginning of the new year, more precisely since zero hour on the first day of January, there was no record in the whole country of anyone dying.”
Initially joyous at defeating death, people quickly learn how much they depended on her to keep their lives going. Hospitals have no empty beds. No longer can they rely on rotating the newly sick with the newly dead. Doctors, funeral directors, insurance companies experience a financial crisis much like the one visited upon us these days.
Debating the pros and cons of losing death as the ultimate punctuation mark to a life sentence, philosophers argue its pros and cons. Priests protest vociferously, ‘Without death, prime minister, there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church.”
For some people, business is good. For a price, the “maphia” (Saramago’s spelling to distinguish it from its more realistic cousin) joins forces with families and the government to export the very old and the very sick to other countries where they can die in peace—and quickly.
Eternal life turns out to be a curse. After seven months in absentia, Death herself, personified as a lonely, lovely woman sitting in her chilly apartment with her useless scythe and filing cabinets, decides to halt her experiment and return to the hapless citizenry. She mails everyone a letter explaining that she wanted “to give those human beings who so loathe me just a taste of what it would mean to live forever.” Now, she is through.
Those designated to die will have a one-week warning. A violet envelope will tell them to get ready for Death’s arrival. But one envelope doesn’t work. Three times, it comes back to her unopened.. Astonished, Death seeks out its owner. A 50-year-old cellist lives alone with his dog. Falling in love with the cellist, Death becomes human—another curse.
As Death lies in bed with the cellist in her arms, the novel ends with as many questions as it raised in the telling. Was the returned violet envelope intended for Death herself because she succumbs to love?
The novel’s final words repeat its first ones and ask unanswerable questions about our future if death were no more: “The following day, no one died.” Does love conquer death or will Death finally arise and return alone to her old life? Saramago doesn’t say in this circular fable which ends as it began.
With Saramago, form follows function. His deliberately endless sentences demonstrate that even words may need an ending to their journey.
If you read no other book during this archetypally autumnal season, read—and reread—Saramago’s what-if notes on love and death (capitalized or lower case, depending on your point-of-view). And reread John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud,” which shows that love does defeat death.