Jose Saramago
New York: Harcourt,Inc., 2008, from the Portuguese
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
ISBN # 978-0-15-101274-9
238 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2010

The novel opens on December 31st of an unnamed year. The nation is waiting for news of the elderly queen mother who is on the edge of death. However, she doesn’t die, in fact no one dies at all on the following days. Death itself has ended in this nation. We don’t know the nation, and I was fairly much assuming it was Portugal until we read that it was “a landlocked nation.” It is current time, yet some of the setting of the royal family and such suggests an earlier period.

In any case Jose Saramago is at his best in taking this bizarre and counter-factual premise and, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, amusing us with the full logic of what this means. If death has stopped, then much will change. In the economic world the funeral directors are desperate and looking for bailouts. So are many other industries dependent upon death. On the other hand, homes for the elderly and those needing care realize they are in major trouble – if this is the future then in four or five generations there will be many more people in rest homes than those able to care for them even if everyone in the nation were just caring for people. And on and on.

I love this aspect of Saramago. He creates incredible physically impossible situations and then with relentless logic and humor, works out the details of what follows. It makes reading him both challenging, trying to keep up with the logic and granting the necessary suspension of disbelief, and marveling at the magnificence and humor of the writing.

However, despite the brilliance of this writing, the novel has some problems. It seems more like two closely related stories, and has an extraordinarily unsatisfactory ending.

The first story is that which I sketched above and he follows it with great logical development. Eventually he takes a move that most readers will have figured out – the interruption of death is just in the nation of the novel, and since no one gets well, only continue to live, with many, many wishing and wanting to die, there is a logical solution – cross the border into neighboring nations. There death has not been interrupted.

Once this move has been made and the logic of it explored and developed, a sort of second novel develops out of the mess. We learn who caused the mess – death herself (the “her” is Saramago’s choice of gender, harking back to historical images in Western thought). We learn of death’s reason for this historic change, and death’s reaction to some of the difficulties that follow. However this shift from the world of the no-longer-dying to the focus of death trying to deal with her own decisions, leads to a more and more improbable plot (if that is even possible) and ends with a very disappointing whimper.

Despite the fact that I found the plot of the second part of the novel unsatisfying, what is never at issue is the writing itself. Once we are put into some situation, then sentence by sentence, idea by idea, the writing is simply magnificent. Clever, logical, imaginative, filled with references to past culture, very funny and overwhelmingly challenging. Yet, for me, the whole falters and fails to resolve itself in a believable manner, or, for that matter, in ANY manner.

Nonetheless I loved the book and found it one of the most fun and outrageous reads of any of Saramago’s novels. That says a lot since I have read 13 of his novels now and commented on them as well in these pages of bookreviews. Many of the others were more satisfying as a whole, and just amazed me with the brilliance of the writing, but DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS touched me deeply with the awesome writing, the utterly bizarre plot and the tiny twists and turns. Others of his novels were more intellectual provocative, but I have just fallen in love with this little book of death’s improbable interruption!

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett