Thoughts on José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions (by Jill)

death with interruptions cover

First, off, Happy New Year, everyone!  I hope everyone enjoyed the holidays, and that you’re ready for a new year spent with us here on PfP.

When my boss gave me this book, this is how she prefaced it: “I got this from my friend Jerry [who we always share books with, but who I have never met]. The author won the Nobel, I don’t think I really understood the book, but I kept reading because I knew it was good for me to finish it. You should read it. And read it soon, because I’d love to give it back to Jerry the next time I see him.” I’d never heard of José Saramago, but I was game. And it’s a short book. How bad could it be, right? The premise of the book is what would happen if death took a “vacation” and people stopped dying? I don’t mean that everyone is healthy. I mean, people continue to decline and get right to the point where they’re about to die. And then they don’t. It goes without saying that this version of “eternal life” is hardly what anyone would hope for when one hopes to go on forever. The really interesting part of this situation is that people continue to die as usual in other countries and parts of the world; it is just one country where death ceases and desists. This business goes on for several months. During that time, a rural family with a dying patriarch decides to try something: they drive their father across the border into the country next door. The man instantly passes away, and organized crime has a new business. Eventually death decides to get back to work, but she has decided to send everyone a letter a week before they are to die so they have time to prepare. These letters are written on light purple stationery and people come to dread the mail delivery. After a time, one letter keeps bouncing back to death. The person who refuses to die is a cello player in the national orchestra. He has a dog, and is otherwise unremarkable. He doesn’t seem to be aware that he is causing such trouble for death; but death is fascinated by him, so much so that she assumes human form and goes to meet him.

This book was pretty short, but it took me an ungodly amount of time to read. I just couldn’t get into it. Well, let me amend my statement. I enjoyed reading it while I was reading it, but I was not compelled to pick it up very often. First, Saramago is not a fan of what I would call appropriate use of punctuation. He seems to hate quotation marks, as well as normal use of paragraphing for dialogue. It took some work to get used to this—there could easily be three or four speakers in one paragraph (hell, in one sentence), as well as description and exposition. I think I could have tolerated the experimental punctuation if it hadn’t been for the lack of actual characters doing actual things for most of the first half of the book. It was all very impersonal and written like a magazine article about the time that there was no death. Once death made her presence known and Saramago started to focus on her as a character I enjoyed it more. I wanted to know more about death’s habits and what she did all day in her subterranean lair before she started writing letters on light purple stationery. Reasons for why she stopped killing people on January 1st are never given. It annoys me that Nobel Prize-winning authors (except Alice Munro, bless her short-story-writing heart) are so freaking cerebral, so freaking closed off to their readers. I swore I wouldn’t go on a tirade about this, and that’s all I’m going to say. Bethany and I had this conversation last week, I doubt anyone wants to get involved in it besides the two of us. I suppose that there needs to be cerebral/minimally accessible writers in the world; otherwise, who would we aspire to read? Who would we write dissertations about? Not that I would write a dissertation about anyone, but some people have to do those sorts of things.

Death with Interruptions was an interesting book, and it should not have taken me as long to read as it did. I wish I had more time and inclination to think more on the things Saramago was trying to say about church and state in the beginning of the book. I’m sure this would be a great book to write about in a formal setting, some sort of “philosophy of death and dying in the twenty-first century” graduate level course or something. But that’s not me, and I want to be done with this book and get it back to my boss so she can give it back to Jerry. Hopefully the next one she gives me from him will be much more approachable (spoiler alert: I’m reading the next one. It’s called Stoner, and it’s wonderful). I don’t recommend this book for people who like their reading to be easy and simple. But for folks who like to chew on long, complicated sentences and think deeply about how fiction relates to the world we live in, give it a shot.

Oh, and one more thing.  That death’s head moth that features so prominently in The Silence of the Lambs also comes up a couple of times in Death with Interruptions.  So if you aren’t prepared to think about Hannibal Lecter while reading the work of a Nobel Laureate, you should also probably stay away from this one….

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This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Jose Saramago, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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