Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 238 pages
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Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, (on Kobo) reads like a fable with the anthropomorphization of dogs and death.  Saramago’s style lacks punctuation, dialogue separations, and other grammatical elements that many readers come to rely upon, but in this case, these omissions are done with purpose.  Once readers immerse themselves into the narrative, these grammatical signals are not warranted.  The “what-if” scenario in this novel is what would happen if death took a vacation, and no one died — but remained just on the cusp of death and life, unable to improve and get better and unable to fully pass away. 

What transpires is a country in chaos, hospitals overflowing with patients in a sort of stasis before death and nursing homes unable to care for all of the ailing in the most dignified way.  His prose is heavy handed against the government, religion, and business, as well as human nature in general, particularly when explaining the motivations behind the care and disposal of the living-dead.  The absurdity of the scenario and the satire are focused heavily on the internal decision makers and the elite of the church bureaucracy.  Readers will either find his prose humorous in his treatment of these elements, or they will be confused or taking it too seriously that they find the story too limited in scope or too focused on the mundane.

“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.” (page 3)

Amidst the heavy handed and grim dealings of the government, religion, and medical fields to deal with the crisis of no on being able to die and be buried, Saramago offers readers a look at the darker side of humanity following an initial euphoria that immortality had been achieved.  A deeply philosophical fable, this novel is almost of two minds — focused on the human institutions and their reaction in one half and then focused on the reasons why death has ceased and wanted a vacation from it all.  While the latter half of the book is very reminiscent of those old myths about the gods falling for humans, Saramago never loses sight of who death is and how manipulative and tactless she can be.  She’s romancing a cellist, but in the only way death can, with veiled threats of harm and mystery about her intentions.  Some readers will either love the last third of the book or find it too cliche.

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa — our April book club selection — examines what it means to face death or the knowledge of death, whether you get your affairs in order and atone for past sins or go out in a blaze of glory.  Saramago will have readers questioning their own mortality.

What the Book Club Thought:

The book club was all over the place with this one, with some really finding it humorous, a few not even finishing the book, and a few others that simply hated it.  While many abhorred the writing style, others didn’t mind it as much, but wanted a more impactful story about individual families or characters — they wanted to see the more human side of things.  None of the members agreed on who the narrator could be, though some suspected God, the Scythe, or Love as the narrators.  While I was dealing with a toddler during this meeting and a migraine, I probably missed a lot of the discussion, which is unfortunate for me, since I’ve read a few of this novelist’s books before and may have been able to help with a bit of the background, etc. for him and his writing.  There is definitely a great number of issues to talk about and definitely will raise dilemmas, but the members will have to get through the book first.

About the Author:

José de Sousa Saramago (1922–2010) was a Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party.  His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He founded the National Front for the Defense of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with among others Freitas-Magalhaes. He lived on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he died in June 2010.