Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

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 (Harcourt, 256 pages) 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 main problem is itself common; it is the question of euthanasia. Is it moral to help people die or not? The way Saramago explores this problem is original, to say the least. He makes it necessary for an entire country to respond, as a country, to this question. People suddenly stop dying, even the terminally ill and those who have been in “fatal” accidents.  Nevertheless, the citizens cling to their feeling that life is sacred, even though under the new circumstances it would be wiser to admit that death is sorely missed.

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.

The omniscient narrator has 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.

V. N. Alexander, author of Naked Singularity (2003).


The Following day, no one died. 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. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old Atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day. There was, however, no shortage of blood. Bewildered, confused, distraught, struggling to control their feelings of nausea, the firemen extracted from the mangled remains wretched human bodies that, according to the mathematical logic of the collisions, should have been well and truly dead, but which, despite the seriousness of the injuries and lesions suffered, remained alive and were carried off to hospital, accompanied by the shrill sound of the ambulance sirens. None of these people would die along the way and all would disprove the most pessimistic of medical prognoses, There’s nothing to be done for the poor man, it’s not even worth operating, a complete waste of time, said the surgeon to the nurse as she was adjusting his mask. And the day before, there would probably have been no salvation for this particular patient, but one thing was clear, today, the victim refused to die. And what was happening here was happening throughout the country. Up until the very dot of midnight on the last day of the year there were people who died in full compliance with the rules, both those relating to the nub of the matter, i.e. the termination of life, and those relating to the many ways in which the aforementioned nub, with varying degrees of pomp and solemnity, chooses to mark the fatal moment. One particularly interesting case, interesting because of the person involved, was that of the very ancient and venerable queen mother. At one minute to midnight on the thirty-first of December, no one would have been so ingenuous as to bet a spent match on the life of the royal lady. With all hope lost, with the doctors helpless in the face of the implacable medical evidence, the royal family, hierarchically arranged around the bed, waited with resignation for the matriarch’s last breath, perhaps a few words, a final edifying comment regarding the moral education of the beloved princes, her grandsons, perhaps a beautiful, well-turned phrase addressed to the ever ungrateful memory of future subjects. And then, as if time had stopped, nothing happened. The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated, she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it could only have been death, continued to keep hold. We had passed over to the next day, and on that day, as we said at the beginning of this tale, no one would die.

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