"On the first day of the new year, no one dies. This, understandably, causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, funeral directors, and doctors. Among the general public, on the other hand, there is initially celebration - flags are hung out on balconies, people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity: eternal life. Then reality hits home - families are left to care for the permanently dying, life-insurance policies become meaningless, and funeral directors are reduced to arranging burials for pet dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots. Death sits in her chilly apartment, where she lives alone with scythe and filing cabinets, and contemplates her experiment: What if no one ever died again? What if she, death with a small d, became human and were to fall in love?"--jacket blurb.
Zo'n openingszet, die alles op scherp zet en de lezer elektrocuteert, is een geraffineerde variant op het 'er was eens' van het sprookje. Dan is de moraal vaak niet ver weg meer. Dat is soms even slikken, juist bij zo'n geharnast moralist als Saramago. Hier is het dat niet: daarvoor is het verhaal te goed verteld, te geestig ook - en het verlangen dat erdoor gefileerd wordt, het anti-doodsverlangen, te vitaal.
The story is split into two parts. In the first, death (yes, with a small "d") takes a holiday. In a small, unnamed European country, no one dies for several months. The narrator tells us what this means - for ordinary people, for the government, for the undertakers and insurance companies, etc. It's a kind of meta-narrative, where the few "characters" are unnamed - the prime minister, the king, the head of state television. It's very theoretical and cerebral.
And then Saramago changes gear, focuses in on death herself as a character and her relationship with one individual who is supposed to die. It's a beautiful and bittersweet second part of the novel that raised the book to a near 5-star read for me. For all of the focus on death as the main driver in the novel, it is really about life and what it means to live and to live well and meaningfully.
I am so pleased I stuck with this one. It was a rewarding read.
A good theme for me might include controversial social issues, human paradoxes, ethical puzzles-- problems to which there are no easy solutions. The concerns of unmarried 32-year-old woman and the plight of a middle-aged man whose affair is petering out are not real "problems," in my view, nor is the temporary loss of faith in God or humanity.
A good style for me pays attention to the sounds of words; it's poetic. I like uncommon words as these tend to be a little more fresh (they make you look harder) and concise. I dislike intensely "transparent" narration, and I prefer first-person narratives, with plenty of thoughts described. In my opinion, the most important function novels serve is that they allow one to vicariously experience another's point of view. I like narrators with plenty of personality.
And, if this isn't a third thing, a writer that has all of the above ought also to have a good sense of irony and humor.
Jose Saramago's Death with Interruptions is thematically appealing to me. It is a comedy (and not really a dark one, despite its subject), whose main protagonist (in the first half of the book) is a society, not a person, a society whom death has decided to abandon. The way Saramago gets to this problem is original, to say the least. The problem itself is common, the question of euthanasia. The best parts of the book occur when the omniscient narrator momentarily dips down close to a single family who take their perpetually dying patriarch and infant child across the border where death is still active. This family's problem is complex and terrible, and they face it with dignity and care. But this passage is brief. Most of the time the narrator describes the mind of a group. Groups are usually dull-witted and predictable compared to individuals.
Stylistically, the novel is plain, or at least the English translation by Margaret Jull Costa is. But the narrator does have a personality. He's got a good ironic sense of humor. He's kind to the people he satirizes, and he is not above any of the human foibles he describes.
In the second half the protagonist death falls in love with a man she fails to kill. There are two lessons: society learns not to take death for granted: she's needed. Death learns what its like to not want to lose someone. In sum, it does not have everything I want in a novel, but it's a nice little fable, gently told.
Saramago’s Blindness was a little like Camus’ The Plague, and Death is a little like Blindness in some respects. Like several of his novels, it is set in an unnamed country, and this time the characters have no names, only titles: president, director, minister, cellist, king, and prime minister.
Saramago uses long, complicated sentences with commas, periods, and an occasional apostrophe. He never uses question marks, exclamation points, or colons, semi or otherwise. The only letters capitalized are those following a period, those beginning a new statement in a conversation, and the letter I when death (not capitalized) refers to herself.
Here is an example of what I mean: “Death is sitting there, on a narrow crimson-upholstered chair, and starring fixedly at the first cellist, the one she watched while he was asleep and who wears striped pajamas, the one who owns a dog that is, at this moment, sleeping in the sun in the garden, waiting for his master to return. That is her man, a musician, nothing more, like the almost one hundred other men and women seated in a semicircle around their personal shaman, the conductor, and all of whom will, one day, in some future week or month or year, receive a violet-colored letter and leave the place empty, until some other violinist, flautist or trumpeter comes to sit in the same chair, perhaps with another shaman waving a baton to conjure forth sounds, life is an orchestra which is always playing, in tune or out, a titanic that is always sinking and always rising to the surface, and it is then that it occurs to death that she would be left with nothing to do if the sunken ship never managed to rise again, singing the evocative song sung by the waters as they cascade from her decks, like the watery song, dripping like a murmuring sigh over her undulating body, sung by the goddess amphitrite at her birth, when she becomes she who circles the seas, for that is the meaning of the name she was given” (188-89). Death has decided to send violet colored letters to individuals whom she has scheduled for death in seven days.
This excerpt constitutes two-thirds of a page of a five-page paragraph. Not exactly stream of consciousness, but it does require close attention to stay on Saramago’s wagon.
His dialogue is not broken into individual statements but is simply blended into the paragraph. Here follows a brief example of a conversation between the scythe and death, who has made a mistake and failed to deliver a letter to a man while he was forty-nine. The birthday has passed and he is still alive: “You can’t do that, said the scythe, It’s done, There’ll be consequences, Only one, What’s that, The death, at last, of that wretched cellist who’s been having a laugh at my expense. But the poor man doesn’t know he is supposed to be dead, As far as I’m concerned, he might as well know it, Even so, you don’t have the authority to change an index card, That’s where you’re wrong, I have all the power and authority I need, I’m death,” (184).
Saramago is always great fun. He also wrote The Stone Raft (Spain and Portugal float off into the Atlantic), and All the Names about a clerk in a government ministry in charge of vital statistics, who becomes obsessed with a stranger on a card stuck to one he was updating. Saramago won the Nobel Prize a few years back, and I highly recommend him for some fun, absorbing reading. 5 stars
The second half of the novel gets to know death in a more personal way. An unusual incarnation, death (with a small d) lives as a young woman alone in her apartment, occupying most of her day talking to her scythe and writing out letters informing people of their imminent deaths - now given a week in advance, as a compromise and improvement upon the old way of an unexpected death. Yet, when she tracks down a cellist whose fatal letter returns to her unopened, humanity encounters death in a new way. A dialogue and two-way relationship, wherein death learns simple pleasures of life and gets to know human existence better. So yes, it's kind of the inverse of the Christian Incarnation. Death is not a terrifying force to be feared and defeated, but something small and very human herself, a part of life rather than its antagonist.
A few months ago I read Saramago’s dystopian book Blindness. Someone recommended to me another of his novels, and as I was intrigued by the story I really wanted to read it.
It starts when suddenly no one dies anymore in an unnamed country probably somewhere in Europe. This isn't as good as people first expect because people may die no longer, but they still get seriously ill, get car accidents et cetera.
It wasn’t really what I expected, though I did like it. The story is very ‘cold’, as the point is to tell us what happened after people stopped dying. It’s mostly a summation of situations where we are told how specific people react to them. Like for example, what the doctors should do with all the patients who will never recover nor die? This makes that the book almost reads as a report.
The introduction of the devil, her new approach to death and what happens when one death announcement letter keeps coming back; and the ending of the book kept me guessing. One of my all-time favourite reads.
At first this news is greeted with elation. It’s the end of Death’s age-old tyranny, the greatest fear suddenly removed. But then the complications begin. People still suffer, old people lie in bed on the verge of death but unable to cross over. Retirement homes go into crisis, as people continue to arrive but nobody leaves. Funeral homes and life insurance companies are also distraught, although the insurance people manage to land on their feet as always. Bishops and philosophers meet to discuss the implications of death’s disappearance. The fear of death has long been the basis of morality and religion, after all.
Meanwhile, some people take matters into their own hands. A family decides to put its terminally ill father out of his misery by taking him across the border into the neighbouring country where death is still operating as usual. This becomes a trend and then starts a whole industry, which is soon taken over by the mafia. Then, after a while, death reappears…
It’s an incredibly imaginative story, and well told. The style is very wordy, with some sentences stretching over pages, and multiple sub-clauses. The dialogue is also not separated by paragraphs or inverted commas, so it can be quite hard to follow sometimes. In general the wordiness works, simply because it is so well-written, but at times I wished he would just get on with it. I do have to put in a mention for the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, as well. This must have been a tough book to translate, and the fact that those long sentences are at all intelligible is a tribute to her ability.
This is the second book I’ve read by 1998 Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, the other one being The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I enjoyed this one more, perhaps because of the fascinating premise and the deft way in which it was handled, or perhaps simply because his style takes some getting used to. I’d definitely like to read more of his work now.
I was curious enough to pick up another book (this one) in the shop and decided the subject was interesting enough to give it a try.
I was well rewarded for my efforts.
Apart from the style you cannot really compare this book to 'Blindness'. I think it's far less dark. Quite frankly, it made me laugh quite a bit.
I keep on wondering how the man came up with his ideas. Who ever thinks about what would happen if death decided to take time off? Because that's basically what it comes down to.
If you are curious, I suggest you pick up this book and find out. It's well worth it.
Good thing Mr. Saramago had more than the usual time before he recieved his violet envelope - his stories are charming and skeptical as ever.
So far so good, but then a letter comes back to her (death), and after resending it, comes back even quicker. And again. And death has to go amongst the humans and find out why this particular person does not receive this letter. It is a funny, fantastic, slightly dark tale and so very fascinating - our dealing with death and the terminally ill. It the little twist at the end is so very moving and clever. So, I liked the story.
The second review goes to the way the author tells the story. The book has chapters but no paragraphs, no punctuation to separate speech and the sentences are sometimes half a page long, with lots of commas to divide them. Si it is not easy to read. But reading is not just about the story, reading is about the pleasure found in somebody elses use of words, turn of phrase. And pleasure it is. As soon as you get used to the long sentences (after about 20 pages) their beauty becomes apparent. Like a winding path through a maze bordered by buildings and trees, with dark corners and lit squares it takes you to the other side. Now and then I had to stop and reread, not because of a difficulty but because of the sheer joy a sentence would trigger in me. It is a perfect little book.
The second half is the story of death herself --- death is restored, but at intervals... i found the ending of the novel a bit weak, though, and tending towards kitschy.While entertaining and a pleasure to read, i think this is not the Nobel Prize winner's best.
Saramago is no stranger to writing epic stories about massive events befalling Portugal such as Blindness and massive political upheaval, for instance. This story is no different and yet it is quite a bit different at the same time. death decides to take a vacation here (Death is the massive death of the population while death affects individuals.) In any case, both cease for a period of time and Saramago spends a great amount of detail delving into the logistics of what that means for the church, government, and industry (from nursing homes to funeral parlors) In the novel, people don't get better...they just don't die.
I think as it's fault, it should have delved more into the human psyche and gets too laborious with trying to make this a realistic seeming occurrence that the magic is a little lost.
Another jarring thing about this novel is that it goes into great lengths while examining the loss of death on a mass scale and what families will do to get their sick loved ones across the border (as soon as they get across the border to another country, they then die). Suddenly, it switches pace and examines a second approach from death and instead explores a very personal and specific instance vs. the whole country. The problem is, too much time was wasted on the mass scale that the personal examination isn't as effective in my opinion. Still, some very insightful and innovative thinking here as always. I also liked the rich characterizations of death as a woman.
Some quotes I liked:
p.67 "One cannot be too careful with words, they change their minds just as people do."
p.123 "...words move, they change from one day to the next, they are as unstable as shadows, are themselves shadows, which both are and have ceased to be..."
p.160 "...to be honest, we human beings can't do much more than stick out our tongues at the executioner about to chop off our head...Death is angry. It's high time we stuck out our tongues at her."
Some of the most biting comments are aimed at the church which is horrified because “without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church”; there will also be awkward questions that the church does not want to address because, “it has never been asked to explain anything, our specialty, along with ballistics, has always been the neutralization of the overly curious mind through faith”. Government is also not immune to Saramago’s barbs: “Alas, when one advances blindly across the boggy ground of realpolitik, when pragmatism takes up the baton and conducts the orchestra, ignoring what is written in the score, you can be pretty sure that, as the imperative logic of dishonor will show, there are still, after all, a few more steps to descend”.
Death (or death, in the lower case, as she is always referred to) then decides to re-institute dying, but with the added wrinkle that she will deliver a violet-colored envelope with a letter to each individual indicating that they have one week left to live. This resolves the business issue for the undertakers (who celebrate with champagne), and the “maphia” move to protection rackets when they lose their lucrative business of shipping of people outside the country to die, but it generates a host of other problems as not everyone uses the time soberly to write wills, say goodbye to loved ones and friends. It is in this, the second part, that the book turns into more of a novel, following on the fact that one of the letters death sends out, to a middle-aged cellist in the national orchestra, is returned three times, an event that has never happened before. This worries, and intrigues, death who visits the cellist, first as a spirit, then as a flesh and blood woman, intending to hand him the letter so that he can no longer deny his fate which, of course, he does not realize he is facing at that time. But even as a spirit, and more so in her flesh and blood form, death finds herself subject to emotions she had not known; she goes to the cellist’s apartment late at night and asks him to play Bach’s Suite No.6, which he does more brilliantly and more effortlessly than he ever has, and at the end of it, death’s hands, “were no longer cold” and they go to bed together. Will death fulfill her destiny and leave the envelope under the pillow of the cellist as he sleeps (after making love three times)? Or is Saramago saying that love, through art, can overcome death? The answer is that you can interpret the book and the ending as you will because, as Saramago himself reminds us, this is a “fable” with an “congenital unreality”, and “…all the many things that have been said about god and about death are nothing but stories, and this is just another one.”
There is some wonderful humour in the book. One of the newspapers decides to clean up death’s notice to the press about the letters of notification, including capitalizing Death in the sign-off, and a grammarian parses the notice which he describes it as a “disgrace and an insult” for its style and grammar. This prompts a stinging rebuttal and threat from death to the editor which results in an immediate recantation. There is also a scene in which the prime minister is explaining certain developments to the king with dialogue that could have come straight out of Yes, Minister or Monty Python.
This is an intriguing and interesting book.
Although his tongue is still firmly planted in his cheek, and I found myself 'whooping' out loud several times with sheer delight at a ludicrous touch, the first part of the book is too dry and impersonal. Most people I know preferred the first half, especially for the ideas debated. And they were truly intriguing. But ironically, the book only came 'alive' for me when death entered as a character. I couldn't believe I was empathizing with She Who Must be Avoided, but I certainly was. And as her dilemma grew, so did my compassion.
Yes, these seem like two folk-tales loosely bound together, very different in mood and challenge. Overall, I was quite disappointed until the last third, even though in retrospect the ending seems somewhat inevitable, I couldn't help saying out loud "Oh Cool!"
My book group much preferred the first half, at least those who bothered to finish and I can certainly understand why. But I was able to relate to the second tale and I can't wait to hear what others thougt of The End.