Death with interruptions

by José Saramago

Paper Book, 2008





Orlando : Harcourt, c2008.


"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.… (more)

Media reviews

Elke roman van José Saramago opent met een paukenslag.Op de eerste bladzijden introduceert hij een hoogst ongewone toestand, die vaak door een even abrupte als absurde ingreep van hogerhand wordt geforceerd.
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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member katiekrug
Near perfect. This was a challenging and sophisticated novel that I might normally have found pretentious except Saramago blends just the right amount of humor and poignancy to keep it grounded and engaging.

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.
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LibraryThing member tori_alexander
As a reviewer, there are two things you'll want to know about me before bothering to read further. I only like literary fiction, and I only like literary fiction that's a bit "difficult," in one way or another, style or theme, preferably both.

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.
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
Satire is the use of humor to promote improvement in an individual, the government, or an institution. I have always considered Saramago’s novels to be satiric, but with a subtle streak of fun. Death with Interruptions is no exception, but the final chapters are really a hoot!

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

--Jim, 5/6/09
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LibraryThing member RoxieT
A favorite “classic” from my favorite author. A different viewpoint about death from a personified angle. I always enjoys Saramago’s works, though his lack of punctuation may not annoying for some.
LibraryThing member bodachliath
A surreal modern parable full of imagination and quirky black humour. If, like me, you have read Saramago's earlier novel Blindness, this one has a similar structure. This one starts with the premise that in a small country, all death suddenly stops. The first half of the book explores the consequences of this, and the second half introduces the traditional personication of death, who realises that her work is not being monitored and starts to rebel. Saramago's style involves long convoluted sentences, but this is not a difficult book to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
The inevitable force of death has decided to desert one unnamed country. Naturally, at first its citizens are euphoric, imagining themselves specially singled out, given the hope of eternal life in a new millennium. But as the novel plays itself out, the logistics and ramifications of a society without death become quickly apparent. Medical resources are strained to their limit - people don't stop aging or decaying, just stop dying at a proper time - and religions have lost a cornerstone of their function without either death or the presumed afterlife. This is the first half of the novel: the prose goes through the impact upon this society in an interesting mental exercise. As it progresses I felt more and more aware about how we have in some ways created a culture of death for ourselves - a fact only made apparent when death is taken away.

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.
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LibraryThing member Big_Bang_Gorilla
In which a bemused nation finds that nobody there dies any more. This is a very familiar premise to fans of interwar drama and movies such as "On Borrowed Time" and "Death Takes a Holiday", but this is a very different beast. The first half of the book is mostly a series of vignettes which the author uses as a launching pad to ruminate on various social institutions such as church, crowd, and state. The second half of the book resembles a novel a little more closely. I found this very non-entertaining, and although it was at times thought-provoking, his lucubrations on this-n-that are extremely involuted. In addition, his style is abrasively off-putting. The book is underpunctuated (I had my fill of e. e. cummings in junior high, thank you very much) and he revels in stylistic tics such as misspelling one of his most frequently used words throughout.… (more)
LibraryThing member njah
First Saramago, slow start interesting finish. Humorous, plan to read 'Blindness' next.
LibraryThing member seidchen
"Death with Interruptions" is the lightest of Saramago's books I have read and the most pointedly witty in its social criticism. Perhaps attempting to embody so serious an abstraction as death invariably leads to a degree of frivolity--there are certainly precedents in this case, to which Saramago doesn't cease to delight in gesturing. I found this a quick, fun and thought-provoking read.… (more)
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
This is a great book!! Saramoago is a writer that demands a great deal from his reader, but he gives even more. In a small un named European country, death stops, that is the first part of this very small novel. At first there is joy then there is chaos. That inself is interesting but in a strange way ordinatory. Where the book becomes very interesting, when we meet the character death, now the novel becomes a rich myth. Myth in the way that Joseph Campbell wrote about myth a way to talk about something that we can't talk about in ordinatory ways. Death falls in love. I love this book… (more)
LibraryThing member nelsonpj
A fascinating story, I was amazed and how he gradually revealed the various consequences that occur when people no longer are dying.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member deebee1
The latest of my favorite author's book translated into English. As usual, his prose is wonderful as only he can write, one grasps quickly his witty humor and profound wisdom of human nature. This time, the story is about the withdrawal/suspension of death (a she) where suddenly on the 1st day of the year, no one dies, and the day after, and the next, and so on. The first half of the story deals with the country's reaction - the chaos and confusion which follow, and how everybody in his/her own way dealt with the it (the government, the citizens, the church --- this one i found funny but indeed rings true, for they say, if there is no death, there can be no resurrection, and then what will be the church's own justification for existence? Indeed, the absence of death was a threat to the existence of the church itself! (this by the Archibishop).

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.
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LibraryThing member Megabaker
I like the beginning better than the end, but enjoyed the logistical implications of death's non-arrival the best. A dark humor is needed.
LibraryThing member getupkid10
Great at some points, but often boring and long-winded story.
LibraryThing member franoscar
This book was fun to read. It is fanciful but the fancy holds together, and the imaginative situations challenge your mind.
LibraryThing member John
In an unnamed, land-locked country, governed by a constitutional monarch with a strong presence of the Catholic church, it suddenly transpires that, “absolutely contrary to life’s rules” no one dies. People age, become infirm, are mangled in accidents, but no one can die. At first, this seems an incredible boon, the answer to the age-old quest for eternal life, but the problems soon become apparent: morticians are put out of business (and much to their chagrin, have to resort to burying all sorts of pets), hospitals and retirement homes are overrun because there is no turnover, families face having to care for the old and infirm whom they thought they had neatly shipped off to institutions, the national pension scheme is going to crash as the number of productive people continually dwindles compared to the old and infirm, the government is at a loss as to what to do and ends up conspiring with the “maphia” for the transportation of people outside the borders of the country (at a cost) where they immediately die. The latter provokes the neighbouring countries to mobilize their armies because they don’t want people being buried willy-nilly on their territory, so the country in our story mobilizes its border forces and the two armies stare at each other across the border and then stand down when the “maphia” make new arrangements that satisfy all. There is wonderful satire here with businesses lining up quickly to demand government action and support, mindless patriotism, and military jingoism; not without echoes in some of today’s events.

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.
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LibraryThing member nicky_too
After reading 'Blindness' I was in serious doubt. I did like that book a lot, but the style was very difficult to deal with. The sheer lack of capital letters and punctuation, the long sentences, the way you can hardly tell the difference between dialogue and narration; I almost didn't want to read another book by José Saramago again.
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.
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LibraryThing member hermit
On January 1 in an unspecified year and country, no one dies. Death has decided to go on strike and social catastrophe follows. After some months Death resumes her work, with the proviso that victims receive advance notification by mail. But then she runs across a bachelor cellist that evades Death's letter. It is a dark yet interesting read, a philosophical novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
A wry and humorous tale, 'sticking its tongue out at death', and all of our follies, too. His style is something you either live with or you don't, but the rest is brilliant subversive fable.

Good thing Mr. Saramago had more than the usual time before he recieved his violet envelope - his stories are charming and skeptical as ever.… (more)
LibraryThing member HeikeM
This book deserves two reviews really. The first has to be about the story: Death has decided not to take anybody due to die from the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve. However badly you are injured, however serious your illness, you will not die. That of course leads to all sorts of problems - nursing homes fill up with the near dead, funeral parlours run out of work (and turn to bury pets), hospitals are bursting at the seams and still, every day there are more of the should-be-dying. A maphia (yes, ph) appears who takes the near dead over the border to the next country where death is still working, for a lot of money of course. After seven months, death sends a letter to the television director explaining her actions and announcing that from now on she'll give everybody one weeks notice with a purple letter, so one can make arrangements for one's own death.
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.
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LibraryThing member AndrewBlackman
I love the premise of this book. One day, in a particular country, people stop dying. They still get old, get sick, get mangled in car accidents, etc., but they can’t die.

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.
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LibraryThing member BCCJillster
I was enthralled by the Cave and Blindness by Saramago, so I was prepared for his style. But I was disappointed by the failure to make his wonderful beginning as compelling as his other books. The premise had such possibilities, but it felt like he wrote an essay on the effect of (the absence of) death on society rather than a novel peopled with characters.

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.
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LibraryThing member kirstiecat
I have been reading alot lately...instead of eating, I just devour mainly books now. Anyhow, I'd like to catch up from the past months in the next few days and Saramago seems like a good place to start, especially seeing as how he oddly passed away after I had finished reading his novel Death With Interruptions.

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 " 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."
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LibraryThing member lilithcat
"The following day, no one died." Thus begins this odd little book in which Saramago imagines what happens in a country in which no one dies. People who should die remain just this side of death. At first, the country rejoices. Death is vanquished! But then reality sets in. Who will care for those who ought to be dead? What will become of undertakers, and the issuers of life insurance policies? The Catholic Church realizes that if there is no death, there could no resurrection, and therefore no point to having a church. When it is discovered that death's hiatus is confined to one country, a profitable business springs up to smuggle across the border those who ought to be dead.

Then, after several months of no one dying, a letter on violet-colored paper mysteriously appears on the desk of the director-general of television, a letter from death (small "d", as she insists). Te letter announces that people will start to die again, but that from now on they will receive due warning from her, in the form of a violet-colored letter. So death begins again, but, to her surprise, one letter keeps coming back to her. The intended recipient does not die on schedule. She, curious, follows him. What happens when death falls in love?

How does an individual react to the unexpected? How does a society? When social norms are upended, uncontrollably, what happens?
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LibraryThing member KRM35
I loved this book. It was darkly funny throughout and reminded me of much of Kundera's works. Would highly reccomend as an intro to Saramago.


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