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Book Review: Death With Interruptions by José Saramago

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How do we deal with José Saramago? This Nobel laureate writes books that read more like fables than novels. Often his characters are so poorly developed that the author doesn’t even assign them names, let alone inner lives. If an award were given for run-on sentences, he would win it every year. His preferred narrative voice is marked by a smugness, false humility, and aloofness that would infuriate you if you ran into it in real life. Yet this is the author who the esteemed Harold Bloom has called the “most gifted novelist alive in the world today.”

The only way to read Saramago is to give yourself over completely to his perspective, a bemused disdain that looks on the fortunes and foibles of human affairs the way we might observe the comings and goings on an ant hill. Some have compared this writer to Kafka and Borges, and at his finest moments Saramago approaches their artistry. At other points, he settles for satire, and he moves closer to (Garrison) Keillor than Kafka, (Dave) Barry than Borges.

What he lacks in psychological realism, Saramago makes up for with his sociological insights. This is his strong suit. Sometimes his books proceed like experiments undertaken by a crazed social engineer with a hypertrophied sense of the ironic. His recent Death With Interruptions, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, is a case in point. Here Saramago looks at what would happen if Death truly went on vacation.

The concept is not a new one. Fredric March charmed audiences as Death personified in the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, and accounts of mortals who elude the Grim Reaper are pervasive in traditional cultures – for example, some variant of the Orpheus myth has been identified in more than 50 different Native American tribes, and figures in cultures from every part of the globe. But whereas the vast majority of these accounts focus on the micro-level drama, and the specific individuals involved, Saramago prefers to take a macro-level view of the proceedings.

“The following day, no one died,” Interruptions opens. And as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that this hiatus in death is not just a one day anomaly, but is continuing indefinitely – at least in the unnamed country where the story transpires. People continue to age, suffer from poor health, get shot, have accidents; but they all linger on… and on and on. Meanwhile, across the border, death continues to claim its victims as before. Saramago's conceit here — which you have probably already foreseen — is that immortality proves to be far more troublesome than the previous state of affairs.

In the first half of his book, Saramago is less interested in how specific characters deal with the disappearance of death than, as noted above, with the group dynamics that ensue. His major players include the government, the church, the mafia, (or maphia, as they are called here), the hospitals and hospices, and various trade associations (of undertakers, grave-diggers, etc.). At times, Interruptions almost seems like a Harvard Business School case study penned by Michael Porter, addressing the competitive dynamics of a surprising development in the marketplace. This is a peculiar type of fiction, but no one does it better than Saramago, who is the supreme chronicler of organizational behavior in crisis situations.

Yet in the second half of the novel, Saramago shifts gears entirely. The embargo on death comes to a sudden halt midway through the book, and people start dying again. The rest of Interruptions follows the activities of death personified as a woman (although with a small ‘d’), who is unable to kill a cellist for reasons that are never made quite clear. Death investigates the case of this mysterious, and seemingly immortal musician, and soon finds herself hopelessly attracted to her intended victim. We are now back in Fredric March territory, and the focus shifts from the macro level of the first half of the book to the specific situation of a small cast of characters.

The end result is a book that never quite coheres. Two stories are stitched together, and the linkages between them are unsatisfying. The most fully developed character in this novel is the personification of death, who is, at best, a one-dimensional protagonist. Those who are enamored with Saramago’s distinctive run-on prose and stylized narrative approach will still want to read Death With Interruptions, but those coming to this writer for the first time would do better to start with a more fully realized work such as the same author’s Blindness.

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