Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2018

Death with Interruptions, by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Over at Winston’s Dad, it’s Spanish/Portuguese Lit Month, so  (after an abortive choice of The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca which I abandoned as unpleasantly nihilistic with an unremittingly grim view of human nature) I took up José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, confident that I would enjoy it because I am a great admirer of Saramago’s writing. Like all the other Nobel Prize winners I have read, he doesn’t just write great books, he also has something important to say about the human condition.

Saramago, who died in 2010 aged 87, would have been 83 when this book was published in 2005, so it’s fair to assume that death would have been on his mind.  In this witty and perceptive novel, he explores the notion of eternal life, said to be the ultimate quest for human beings, but exposed here as a catastrophe which brings out the worst in people and the institutions that are meant to serve them.

From the start of the new year in an unnamed country (not quite like the Republic of Portugal because there is a monarch, and it’s landlocked), no one dies.  Implicit in the quest for eternal life is the assumption that the living will enjoy good health but this is not what happens in the novel.  People (including the Queen Mother) reach the stage of life or terminal illness where they would normally die, but they don’t, lingering instead in a state of morbidity.  The social consequences of this are that the hospital and aged care homes are overflowing, the insurance and funeral industries are in crisis, and the Catholic Church is in denial because there can’t be resurrection if there is no death.   Most significantly, the economy can’t cope with the growing drain on the country’s resources because there aren’t enough young healthy people to sustain the tax burden.  Yup, the brutal mathematical truth is that there is not an infinite capacity to support an ever-growing population of dependents.

The government is kept busy trying to deal with the catastrophe, even as ordinary people begin to take matters into their own hands.  The initial concern for the huge numbers of the dying who don’t die morphs into exhaustion, distaste, and a desire to be rid of the burden and get on with life.  Those in frontier regions soon get the idea that they can subvert the absence of death in their country by transporting the dying across the border – where they promptly die and then can be buried.  Legally it isn’t murder, but the social opprobrium leads to military patrols on the border, and then an ethical and political problem when the maphia (spelt with an ‘f’ to differentiate it from the Mafia) sees an opportunity and puts pressure on the government not to interfere with its cross-border operations.

It’s the discursive chatty narrative style which marries great philosophical themes with the quotidian, that makes this parable amusing to read.

In this country in which no one dies not everything as sordid as we have just described, nor, in this society torn between the hope of living forever and the fear of never dying, did the voracious maphia succeed in getting its talons into every section by corrupting souls, subjugating bodies, and besmirching the little that remained of the fine principles of old, when an envelope containing something that smelled of a bribe would have been immediately returned to the sender, bearing a firm and clear response, something along the lines of, Buy some toys for your children with this money, or You must have got the wrong address. Dignity was then a form of pride that was within the grasp of all classes.  Despite everything, despite the false suicides and the dirty dealings on the frontier, that spirit continued to hover over the waters, not the waters of the great ocean sea, for that bathed other distant lands, but over lakes and rivers, over streams and brooks, over the puddles left by rain, over the luminous depths of wells, which is where one can best judge how high the sky is, and, extraordinary though it may seem, over the calm surfaces of aquariums too. It was precisely when he was distractedly watching a goldfish that had just come up to the surface to breathe, and when he was wondering, slightly less distractedly, just how long it had been since he had changed the water, because he knew what the fish was trying to say when again and again it ruptured the delicate meniscus where water meets air, it was precisely at this revelatory moment that the apprentice philosopher was presented with the clear, stark question that would give rise to the most impassioned and thrilling controversy ever known in the whole history of this country where no one ever dies. (p.75)

The second part of the novel introduces Death personified, every bit as capricious in the novel as she seems to be in real life.  Saramago has a lot of fun with this character, who chats in her pale haunt with a reticent scythe that only breaks its silence to rebuke her for her poor fashion taste.  There is an elegant discussion about the hierarchy to which she might or might not be answerable, because, you know, there is more than the death of people to be organised… there’s also the death of plants and animals, and the cataclysmic death of the planet as well.

For those who care about these things, a warning: as you can see from the excerpt above, Saramago is noted for his idiosyncratic style so if you can’t tolerate long sentences and paragraphs or the absence of quotation marks, Saramago is not for you.  Which would be a pity.  As you can tell from my writing style, I conform to conventional punctuation, but I have never had a problem reading Saramago and not for the world would I miss reading his novels for the sake of his unconventional punctuation.  Each to his own, as they say.

PS I’ve had this book on my TBR for ages, but it was Karen’s review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings that prompted me to move it up the queue.

Author: José Saramago
Title: Death with Interruptions (As Intermitências da Morte)
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: Harcourt, 2005
ISBN: 9780151012749
Personal copy, purchased from The Book Depository (before it was owned by Amazon).


Responses

  1. I will have to do the same as it sits on my shelf. Started it some years ago and found it hilarious. Ah the ever increasing TBR list.

  2. I’ve not read him but I have seen Stu talk about him. As much as I would like to live indefinitely in my good health state it would be scary to live forever especially in an old decrepit state. The technology alone would tire me and the driverless cars that might fly would really do me in. Lol. Another author for the unending pile. (Sigh)

    • Yes, I’m not interested in having a very old age, not at all. I’ve seen it close up and I don’t like it…

  3. I loved this and his writing, as you know. And fortunately there are so many more of his works for me to read. As for old age – you can keep it….. :s

  4. I can’t list a Saramago novel that I didn’t love. I recently got three if his books that to my dismay and delight I hadn’t yet read. Oh joy!

    • Hello Kinna, thanks for dropping by:)
      Yes, it’s so good when you find there is a backlist to enjoy, and with translated authors, quite often there are books that can be translated long after they were written, which feels like an extra bonus.

  5. I, in my ignorance, have never heard of Saramago. It’s only a few years since I was young. Sad to think I might soon see Death as a friend, but like everyone else, I have never wanted to be decrepit. I wonder if Saramago was saying, I’ve made it to 80 and that will do me.

    • Maybe it’s just my age but everyone I talk to, is not afraid of terrorists or the youth gangs the politicians keep telling us that we’re afraid of. We’re afraid of being kept alive by the medical profession when we’re past our use-by date.

  6. So love this book. I always think of it warmly, such a wonderful tale.

    • I was interested to see how elsewhere people say that it’s not one of his best. I really liked it.

      • I read it before I was actively reading the opinions of other readers, and I was captivated. I think with Saramago, any book you pick up has someone saying it’s not one of his best. Does that mean one is not allowed to like it? I don’t think so. :)

        • I think the reviews I saw were trying to show how clever they were to patronise a Nobel-winning author. (Australians do this with Patrick White, too). I don’t know why people feel a need to do this, but I don’t take any notice of it either.


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