Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book Forty-Eight: Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

Again I am reminded of why this idea of reading one book per week is such a good idea. I find myself stretching my usual reading and looking for something new. This week it is Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Although familiar with the name, I had never read anything by him. However, the premise of this book caught my attention and a week later I have a writer whose work I'll be pursing for some time.

The book focuses on the results of death's (note the small "d") decision to stop having people die at the start of a new year. This death (thus the small "d") is only responsible for people in one country, so of course this  creates all kinds of interesting scenarios. At first people are ecstatic about their new found eternal life, but then reality sets in. People do not die, but they do not stay healthy. Those on the brink of death stay on the brink of death, and people who should die as results of accidents just live on in pain. Nursing homes suddenly find themselves with no room for new customers and undertakers begin specializing in burying pets (non-human deaths are handled by another death). People handling life insurance are the most creative in handling the crisis as they figure out a way to get people to buy their product with promise of an early payout. Even a newly formed "maphia" finds business in transporting the dying across the country's borders so that people can die.  Of course the government (a monarchy) goes into crisis mode with calls for action from several groups, not the least of which is the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic I found this aspect most interesting. Saramago is not kind to Christianity in this book, but he does raise interesting points about the what the lack of death would mean to Christianity. Mine is a faith based on the overcoming of death, so when death ceases to exist, does faith lose its meaning?

What Saramago does in this novel is reintroduce the concept of death in society. While most of us work hard to put off the inevitable end, Saramago reminds of the natural and important role of death. He could have stopped at this point and been set, but he takes the concept a step further. Death reintroduces herself (yes, death is a woman) by contacting the government and announcing the return of death. But now, she'll send everyone a letter one week ahead of time so they can prepare.

At this point Saramago turns his attention to death herself, and the result is fascinating character who works without knowledge of why she does what she does. He plays on the all the stereotypes by having her be a skeleton dressed in a robe, the scythe nearby in her plain room where she writes the letters to those who will die. He acknowledges that her femininity is a traditional interpretation. But death's existence is thrown off when one letter refuses to be delivered. In other words, someone is refusing death, even though he does not know it. Saramago then takes us into death's response to this turn of events, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot.

Saramago's novel is interesting for the wealth of philosophical questions it raises, but it is his writing style which appealed to me the most. A glance at the novel shows solid pages of text since all his conversations simply flow together in the paragraphs, yet without confusion on the speaker. Sentences, ignoring grammatical restraints, can go on for nearly a page at times. Like many contemporary novelists, Saramago is also not shy about addressing the reader. But this is not simply a post-modern experiment. The writing is plot driven and the flowing writing style moves us along smoothly throughout. What may surprise many (including me) given the plot is the amount of humor is the novel. Both the characters and the author recognize cliches and stereotypes, but embrace them with humor instead of avoiding them.

Saramago has created a solid novel throughout. A great premise, sense of humor, raising of good questions, and outstanding writing let me know why he won the Nobel Prize. I'll be searching out more of his works soon.

Up Next
I only have four weeks left in my experiment and I'm feeling unnecessary pressure on what to read. I think I'll finish with Jane Austen, which leaves just a few other books to chose from. Plus, in three weeks I have a week of 18 research papers to read, a daughter's college graduation to consider, and our local Tulip Time festival in which I am involved with daily this year. So what to read now? Anne Tyler definitely needs to get in the mix so one her novels may be next.

A few people have asked if I'll continue the blog after I'm done with my year. I've decided not to, although I'll continue to read a lot and write on Goodreads with some postings on Amazon. If you are on Goodreads (and
 I recommend it) you connect with me at

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