Death with Interruptions, José Saramago (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). Harcourt. 256pp, $24.00.
Besides, all the many things that have been said about god and death are just stories, and this is another one.
—José Saramago, Death with Interruptions
José Saramago prefaces his newly translated novella, Death with Interruptions, with two epigraphs: a prediction and a supposition. “We will know less and less what it means to be human” concisely exemplifies the condition that Saramago has been documenting in his allegorical novels since Blindness. With the second quote, Saramago poses himself a challenge more specific to this book—one which he does not fully meet. He quotes Wittgenstein’s assertion that “If, for example, you were to think more deeply about death, then it would be strange if, in so doing, you did not encounter new images, new linguistic fields.” Though the book follows this hypothesis, Saramago does not find new images or new language with which to speak about death; in fact, he ends up never engaging in any deep thought on the subject.
The book divides, as Seeing did, almost evenly into a first half consisting of broad political satire and a more tightly focused second half that develops characters and tells their story. The premise underlying the satire—that death abandons her duties, that people stop dying, that this is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs—is not an original one; see, for example, the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday or any number of science fiction stories from the intervening years.
Saramago handles the premise ably, picking apart the consequences of this newfound immortality and following each of his threads to its logical conclusion. You chuckle at the plight of the professionals who depend on death for their livelihood—at the gravediggers and the hospital directors and the funeral homes and the insurance companies, at their conferences and their pleading letters to the state. You smile at the prime minister trying to explain the problem to his thick-skulled king. You grin when the kingdom’s philosophers and clerics hold an emergency meeting to “recommence for the thousandth time the debate over whether the glass is half empty or half full,” and shake your head when the bishops agree with a philosopher’s pessimistic statement that “the one justification for the existence of all religions is death, they need death as much as we need bread to eat.”
All this is pleasant enough, but nowhere in satirical first half of Death with Interruptions does Saramago instill confidence that he is allowing his imagination to lead, and so he never arrives anywhere new or unexpected. This is in sharp contrast to his earlier work, where almost every page extends the story into surprising new territory—take for example the vandalized cathedral in Blindness, or the moment when the dog licks tears from the face of the doctor’s wife. Saramago has a knack for confronting the reader with something he is not prepared for, and thereby pulling him into the reality of the text. Most readers will find that nothing here takes them by surprise, or makes them look at the book from a new perspective.
Fortunately, about halfway in something happens: death takes her scythe back up, and amid much public consternation she begins her harvest anew. The key thing here is that Saramago brings the grim reaper onstage as a character, granting her a degree of nuance and reality. Saramago makes her sympathetic, as she confronts a problem she has never encountered before: a man, a classical cellist, who will not die at his appointed time. Saramago warns, “Obviously, we have no reason to feel sorry for death. Our complaints have been far too numerous and far too justified for us to express for her a pity which at no moment in the past did she have the delicacy to show to us,” and yet the warning cannot be wholly accepted. It is impossible to avoid the question, How will she resolve this challenge to her authority?
Orhan Pamuk has said, “Behind every great novel is an author whose greatest pleasure comes from entering another’s form and bringing it to life—whose strongest and most creative impulse is to test the very limits of his identity.” (“In Kars and Frankfurt”: Other Colors, p. 228) The quality Pamuk speaks of here has been Saramago’s greatest strength as a novelist, his ability to completely occupy his characters and thus draw a convincing and sympathetic portrait of their actions in the face of bizarre circumstances. Here, Saramago sets himself an admirable challenge—to imagine death as a realistic character—but rather than find “new images, new linguistic fields” to speak about this inhuman presence, he sidesteps the test: he paints death as merely human, and in quite stereotypical figures. How will she resolve this challenge to her authority? Apparently, about the same way the heroine of a commercial romance novel would. The cellist, meanwhile, the only person who continues to elude death after she has resumed her duties, is potentially a very interesting figure. Who is he? How has he, alone among humans, escaped his destiny? But the author paints him in only the very roughest of strokes. We are given no backstory and scarcely a glimpse into his head. The interaction between these two translucent characters is never solid enough to afford the reader a grip, a way to enter into it.
So the novel is not a successful one. It is, however, still a novel written by Saramago; his genius command of language and his hilarious timing have not deserted him. Here the cellist sits reading in the park:
Although the musician is clearly a lover of literature in general, a look at an average shelf in his library will show that he has a special liking for books on astronomy, the natural sciences and nature, and today he has brought with him a handbook on entomology. He doesn’t have any background knowledge, and so he doesn’t expect to glean very much from it, but he enjoys learning that there are nearly a million species of insects on earth and that these are divided into two orders, the terygotes, which have wings, and the apterygotes, which do not, and that they are in turn classified as orthopterus, like the grasshopper, or blattodea, like the cockroach, mantodea, like the praying mantis, neuroptera, like the chrysopa, odonata, like the dragonfly, ephemeroptera, like the mayfly, trichoptera, like the caddis fly, isoptera, like the termite, aphaniptera, like the flea, anoplura, like the louse, mallophaga, like the bird louse, heteroptera, like the bedbug, homoptera, like the plant louse, diptera, like the fly, hymenoptera, like the wasp, lepidoptera, like the death’s head moth, coleoptera, like the beetle, and finally, thysanura, like the silverfish. As you can see from the image in the book, the death’s head moth, a nocturnal moth, whose Latin name is acherontia atropos, bears on the back of its thorax a pattern resembling a human skull, it reaches a wingspan of twelve centimeters and is dark in color, its lower wings being yellow and black. And we call it atropos, that is, death. The musician doesn’t know it, nor could he ever even have imagined such a possibility, but death is gazing, fascinated, over his shoulder, at the color photograph of the moth.
For fans of his previous works, Death with Interruptions is worth reading if only to slip once again into his densely structured syntax. Margaret Jull Costa, who has been translating Saramago into English since 1997′s All the Names, is in fine form.
In the novel that we will presumably next receive from Saramago—”The Elephant’s Journey” (2008), already published in Portuguese and Spanish—the author leaves the nameless, ahistorical country of his recent works and dips into the well of his own country’s history. He is returning here to a form that has served him well; his early masterpieces such as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1986) are fictional explorations of Portugal’s past. I’m looking forward to reading his work going forward, and feeling confident that when he returns to this allegorical form that he has had so much success with, his reservoir of imagination will be replenished.
Jeremy Osner is a software engineer who lives in New Jersey. He spends his free time reading and writing about reading, and his reading notes can be read on his website.
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