Death With Interruptions
by José Saramago
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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 whom 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.
Click here for Ted Gioia on
José Saramago's Blindness
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 fifty 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,” the book opens. And as the plot
unfolds, it becomes clear that this hiatus in death is not just an 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, the book
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 the novel 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.