Justin's Reviews > Death with Interruptions

Death with Interruptions by José Saramago
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's review
Dec 30, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 10-best-books-read-in-2011

Jose Saramago has simply never disappointed me. Every book I've read of his leaves me amazed at his storytelling and in awe of how he makes his utter disregard for traditional writing rules work for him.

Death with Interruptions is the story of what happens when death (that's 'death' with a lower-case 'd', mind you - a death with jurisdiction only over the unnamed country in which the story takes place) decides to take a break from claiming lives. While her decision initially causes celebration, the backlog of the sick and perpetually dying begin to cause all kinds of problems.

After resuming her business of taking lives - albeit with a newly-introduced warning system - death is thrown for a loop when one of her warning letters refuses to find its way to its intended recipient. Death then assumes human form to take matters into her own bony hands.

That trying to summarize this plot makes it sound so absurd is part of its beauty. The plot is rather absurd, but it is told in Saramago's patented way (pages-long run-on sentences, disregard for punctuation, characters with no names) and the subject matter allows him to guide the reader on a reflection of death. Case in point is this dialogue between a philosopher apprentice and the spirit hovering over his fish aquarium (yes, you read that right):

"We were talking about death, No, not death, about deaths, what I asked was why is it that human beings aren't dying, but other animals are, why is the non-death of some not the non-death of others, when the life of this goldfish ends, and, I should warn you, that won't be long in coming if you don't change this water, would you be able to recognize in its death that other death from which at the moment, for reasons you don't know, you appear to be immune, Before, in the days when people died, on the few occasions when I found myself in the presence of people who had passed away, I never imagined that their death would be the same death I would one day die, Because each of you has his or her own death, you carry it with you in a special place from the moment you're born, it belongs to you and you belong to it"

Or when death stops doubting herself and decides to more fully embrace her authority:

"[T]he death who now rises from her chair is an empress. She shouldn't be living in this freezing subterranean room, as if she had been buried alive, but on top of the highest mountain presiding over the fates of the world, gazing benevolently down on the human herd, watching them as they rush hither and thither, unaware that they're heading in the same direction, that one step forward will take them just as close to death as one step back, that it makes no difference because everything will have but one ending, the ending that a part of yourself will always have to think about and which is the black stain on your hopeless humanity."

For readers familiar with Saramago, the author gives a bit of a wink and nod to the quirks of his writing style when he relays the critique of a grammarian who takes on death's letter to the nation:

"According to the authorized opinion of a grammarian consulted by the newspaper, death had simply failed to master even the first rudiments of the art of writing. And then, he said, there's the calligraphy, which is strangely irregular, it's as if it combined all the known ways, both possible and aberrant, of forming the letters of the latin alphabet, as if each had been written by a different person, but that could be forgiven, one could even consider it a minor defect given the 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, which, can you imagine, is even omitted from the actual signature of the letter and replaced by a lower-case-d."

For those who would side with the grammarian, a Saramago book would be maddening. But those that are open to re-interpretations of how one should write would find a remarkably enjoyable and deeply meditative story in Death with Interruptions.
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