Death with Interruptions

“The following day, no one died.” That’s the first line of Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago’s novel Death with Interruptions. At least since Gilgamesh people have been fascinated with the idea of immortality. But is it a good idea this side of Paradise? Imagine if no one died but people still grew old, became ill, got in accidents, withered away. What would happen to the funeral industry? How would the government and the church respond? What strategies would people invent to cope? With a fertile imagination and skilful pen, Saramago answers these questions in the first part of his book.  The second and smaller part is a love story between the personification of death (described in one review as a “spiteful female shape-shifter”) and a cellist, who doesn’t die when he’s supposed to. I enjoyed this second part of the book more, probably because I’m a sucker for a love story.

I didn’t care for Saramago’s stream of consciousness writing style. At one point I thought death was the narrator since like the novelist she wrote with “chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter.” But alas the author leaves this possibility unresolved. Thick with irony, the story doesn’t seem to take itself seriously, usually a pet peeve of mine, but Saramago’s playfulness works for some reason, like gallows humor. Despite the artistic success of the book, it’s a philosophical failure for me. It raises deep questions without offering deep answers. It skips along the surface of one of the most profound human issues but hardly mentions what might lie on the other side of the grave. It mocks traditional Christianity without offering anything in its place, not even cynicism. What might have been a profound book settles for being merely a good read.

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