Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

[14 December 2008]

By Matthew Tiffany

The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, author of the book On Death and Dying, spent her entire career thinking about the ways in which we cope with death.  She considered it from all the angles, trying to work out how humanity comes to terms with loss, hoping that an understanding of the grieving process might somehow enable us to better understand and cope with the experience of loss.  As though a map through the most treacherous, impassable regions could make that journey easier, or at least you could look at the information and stages of grieving and think I may be trapped out on this mountain peak in a blizzard at midnight, out of food and frostbitten, but at least I know where I am.  Never mind that there’s no key on the map, no way to tell how far to go before you reach the “acceptance” stage.

Or if you’ll even reach it.  The “steps” weren’t meant to be interpreted as any sort of path—Kübler-Ross herself noted that the order of stages was not set, nor was the time one would spend in each stage.  (Your results may vary.)  So, as a construct with which to make some meaning from the loss of a loved one, the best-case scenario is the understanding that there are different stages, and that people (usually, eventually) move through those stages, and so you know what to look for in your soul—you know some of the words to put to the maelstrom of emotions.  Worst case, you berate yourself for not “getting over it” quickly enough and “achieving” the acceptance stage.

Of course, the thinking is that eventually, somehow, you will come to terms with the loss of a loved one.  Every day that person is gone is practice growing accustomed to that void.  What Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions offers is a question - what if people stopped dying?  Saramago’s recent works have had the implications of a particular event as their engines, and as with Blindness and Seeing, those implications drive the narrative in unexpected directions.  Death with Interruptions is presented in two sections; the first lays out the details of the event. 

One country is effected by this “work stoppage” of death, and from New Year’s Eve forward, there are no deaths.  Of course, the devil is in the details, and what follows is a combination of administrative parody and tragic struggle.  The people rejoice—eternal life! a golden age!—and abruptly stop rejoicing as they realize that not dying is not the same thing as not aging.  The government, church, and philosophers struggle ineffectively with the new problems posed by a golden age: more specifically, what the hell do we do with all of these hopelessly incapacitated old people?

Saramago skewers the flailing reactions of each of these institutions mercilessly and slyly, as an underground “maphia” emerges to see to the transport of the elderly and infirm across the border, at which point they promptly expire, and before long the maphia and government find themselves working together.  The church veers back and forth between explanations for the lack of death.  The philosophers spin their wheels in the mud.  When Saramago has this country’s citizens wondering how, at a time with death has completely ceased, “what the hell is going on with the government, who have so far given not the slightest sign of life”—it seems like an instantly universal truism about government’s common problems, regardless of the problem at hand.

The second part of the book comes when death realizes her mistake, and—in a letter to the media—apologizes, pledges to get back to work, and in an effort to make things right with this hapless country, will be sending out “advance notices” of impending death, one week before the event, for each person.  I won’t ruin the surprise of the newspapers’ response to this letter, and death’s further response to them, but if there was ever a contest for “supreme oh-snap moment of the year,” this section would run away with it.  It’s a comment on the media and a wink to critics of Saramago’s writing style, and it provoked a cheer in this reader.

The book’s narration shifts at this point to first person; the less said about this, the better, but think “Joan Osbourne’s biggest hit” and you’re on the right track.  We find death considering her role in the grand scheme of things, and when one of her advance notices reappears in her office—essentially stamped “return to sender”—the ensuing investigation is revealing and touching.

Saramago’s writing style has been examined elsewhere, thoroughly and predictably; suffice to say that he does not veer from his disregard for short, punchy paragraphs with short sentences.  His writing is a challenge to those who would read in short spurts, in patches of time while waiting to see a doctor, or in the bathroom, or in bed at the end of a long day.  Lesser writers have seized on this posed difficulty as a sign of the impending book sales apocalypse - in other words, use punctuation marks around your dialogue or the literary fiction terrorists have won. 

These specious arguments wither in the face of a new Saramago book.  His uncovering of the faults, fallacies, and comedy in some of the most basic assumptions of society and illness transcend any criticism of his style, and in fact it’s hard to imagine the impact of such a story when constrained by “popular” ideas of “readability.”  While at times a challenging author to read, once again Saramago has produced a brilliant, engrossing, inspiring story, run-on sentences be damned.

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