josé saramago, “death with interruptions”

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i’m going on a limb and saying that josé saramago is the best living writer of fiction.   no work of literature written in the last 50 years  is more powerful, insightful and disturbing  than “blindness.”    “the gospel according to jesus christ” – an aggressively (some would say blasphemous) re-telling of the christ story – and “the year of the death ridardo reis” are also works of genius.

if it were written by anyone else,”death with interruptions” would be receiving unbridled acclaim.   but because of his history, saramago is held to a higher standard.    the idea of “interruptions” being written by anyone else though,  is ridiculous.   from the first paragraph, “interruptions” is quintessential saramago.

“the following day, no one died.” opens the novel.    and no one dies the next or the next.    in fact, from new year’s day on, death fails to take any victims in the small country in which the story is set.   in the beginning, this is cause for celebration among the populace.    the first to realize that eternal life is a problem is the church.    no death, no need for redemption, no need for religion — uh-oh.   as  people continue to age and get sick and linger, it becomes clear to various bureaucracies that society will be crushed under the weight of the aged and infirm.    the families of the (perpetually) dying, turn in desperation to crime.   organized crime steps in to fill a need.    you can imagine where we’re going.

but then a hand-written letter arrives from death, saying she is calling off her “experiment.”    yes, “she” and “her.”     death is a woman.    up until this point (about 1/2 way), “death with interruptions” is similar to saramago’s earlier novels, “seeing” or “all the names”  –  very well-written social satire.     once saramago introduces us to death, the book becomes something entirely different.

“death” we are told “knows everything about us, and that perhaps is why she’s sad.  if it’s true that she doesn’t smile, this is only because she has no lips, and this anatomical lesson tells us that, contrary to what the living may believe, a smile is not a matter of teeth.   there are those who say, with a sense of humor that owes more to a lack of taste than it does to the macabre, that she wears a kind of permanent, fixed grin, but that isn’t true, what she wears is a grimace of pain, because she’s constantly pursued by the memory of the time when she had a mouth, and her mouth a tongue, and her tongue saliva.”

saramago later reminds us that “obviously, we have no reason to feel sorry for death.   our complaints have been far too numerous and far too justified for us to express for her a pity which at no moment in the past did she have the delicacy to show to us…”    but later, while death is sitting on small sofa in a bedroom watching a nameless cellist sleep, his dog gets up from the floor next to his bed and jumps onto the sofa and we are told “for the first time in her life, death knew what it felt like to have a dog on her lap.”       the acknowledgment of an existence devoid of a single simple, sensual pleasure –  how do you not feel a twinge of compassion — even if it is for death?

i loved this book.    ok, it lacks the weight of “blindness.”   but it’s beautiful  and imaginative, moving and hopeful — exactly what i need in a novel in january of 2009.

the illustration is by emiliano ponzi, from the new york times book review.

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