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November 5, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | November 5, 2008 |

Those familiar with Jose Saramago, the Nobel Prize winning author of Blindness, will find his latest offering all too recognizable. That’s not to say Death with Interruptions isn’t worth the read — on the contrary, even a mediocre Saramago novel still offers far more to the reader than does the best of many contemporary authors — but, somehow, this short novel falls a bit … short.

Death with Interruptions feels like two separate novels, each quite distinct from the other. The first half is full of Saramago’s trademark social satire, occasioned by an inexplicably altered reality. Lives are forever changed when the people of a small country suddenly find themselves unable to die. (Compare this to Blindness, in which lives are forever changed when the people of a small country suddenly find themselves unable to see.)

Saramago leaps immediately into the tale from the novel’s opening lines, which tell readers that, one particular day, no one died. Our all-seeing, all-knowing narrator continues by noting that:

This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.

As though hovering above this country, our omnipresent narrator moves from discussing the surprising nature of this phenomenon to disclosing the numerous issues that arise from what should otherwise be a joyous occurrence. Unfortunately, a lack of deaths has serious economic, political, and religious repercussions. As everyone comes to learn, death may not be so bad after all. After examining the various scenarios and misfortunes that occur due to no one’s dying, Saramago abruptly shifts gears and narrows his scope, choosing to focus on one particular entity instead of the nation as a whole.

The second half of the novel follows death (with a lower-case “d,” thank you very much) herself, after she has resumed her normal duties nearly eight months later. We learn that the previous eight months were an experiment gone awry, and she resumes her normal duties - with one minor change. Now, she will give one week’s notice to everyone about to die. Official notice arrives in the form of a lavender envelope, which can be neither avoided nor returned. She hopes that this notice will allow the impending deceased to put their affairs in order by writing their wills, saying goodbye to their loved ones, and preparing to face the end. Of course, life doesn’t always go according to plan. Things are complicated even further when, much to death’s consternation, a letter returns to her, unopened. It seems that one man, a cellist, fated to die has managed to avoid the unavoidable, forcing death to enter his world to resolve the problem.

Saramago tells a nice enough tale, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in it. First, there’s the style. Death with Interruptions epitomizes Saramago’s style: long blocks of unbroken text composed of overly long sentences (in fact, there are no paragraphs, no quotation marks, and often no capitalization). When reading Blindness, I felt Saramago’s unique style perfectly carried the tale, and I was unfazed by his stylistic idiosyncrasies. That was not quite my experience here, however. Long stretches of dialogue were often difficult to follow, especially when a character spoke more than one sentence at a time. Long blocks of text daunted me, and I found myself peeking ahead to the end of the chapter in order to gauge how much further before I could take a break.

The style isn’t the only problem, unfortunately. The plot is interesting enough, but it feels forced. It wasn’t long before the discussion of the problems caused by immortality became boring and tedious. Thankfully, it was at this point that the novel shifted to death’s perspective, but even then, it just didn’t feel right. Even Saramago’s message feels a little trite: life needs death in order to be complete - and death needs a little life once in awhile, as well.

If you’ve never read Saramago before, do yourself a favor and read Blindness. While it is similar to Blindness in many ways, Death with Interruptions ultimately fails to live up to its predecessor’s greatness.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago / Jennifer McKeown

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