It seems I have been blessed of late. I have happened upon one of those most improbable streaks in which every book I have picked up has been worthwhile. I have just read one of the strangest and thoroughly entertaining novels I have come across in a long, long time. Death with Interruptions is the first work of Jose’ Saramago that I have had the pleasure to read, but I assure you it will not be the last. Perhaps I have an unrecognized, latent affinity for novels produced in Latin countries. It could be that only the very best are being translated into english. Whatever the reason, as this is the second Latin writer to hit it square out of the park, they are batting one thousand with this reviewer. This book addresses, in a narrative style, a situation that makes one question the nature of death, life, society at large and our place in it. Without being obvious or profane, the author leads us to question our basic moral assumptions. But outside of the lofty ramifications of this read, it is first and foremost a most engaging and entertaining story.
The book starts with the simple line,”The following day, no one died.” I was hooked. As I read on, it became clear that this was not like any book I had read before. The first paragraph runs on for two pages. The is no punctuation, besides commas, and capitalization is practically non-existent. Saramago makes liberal use of run-on, complex sentences, and the lack of conventional cues as to the change of speakers in the dialogue presents additional difficulties. All of these things conspire to create a very difficult book to begin reading. I can hear the reader exclaiming, “Wait! I thought you said this was a good book? It sounds like more work than it’s worth to me!” Trust me when I promise that it is worth every ounce of brain grease. Perhaps Saramago uses this style to cull the shallow. Maybe he is borderline illiterate; (An opinion quickly dispelled by both his vocabulary and usage). I have the opinion that it is a very clever device to insure that the reader pays close attention right from the start. Once the rhythm of the book is found, and the appropriate mental adjustments made, the reader is introduced to a perceptive, witty, irreverent, and magically entertaining story.
The premise of the book is that death (note the small ‘d’) has stopped claiming people within the borders of a small kingdom. What at first blush could be seen as a wonderful miracle is quickly shown to be what it truly is – a major disaster. People continue to age, of course. People continue to become mangled in horrible accidents. They just don’t die. And soon, the number of still living, completely non-functional human beings begins to stack up. Saramago uses this condition to examine some of our most fundamental institutions and their underlying morals and philosophies. The insurance, mortuary, and medical professions are studied in their reactions to the problems presented. The religious and governmental institutions are highlighted in their attempts to cope. A discussion is fostered within the book that promotes a true inquiry within the reader as to what “life” actually is, and what moral foundations are affected when our contemporary view on the subject is made absurd.
One of my favorite topics of this book is how organized crime fills a need to dispose of some of the living corpses. It turns out that once someone that should be dead crosses the borders of the small kingdom, normality returns, and they die. The moral conditions of the country prevent the sanctioned pilgrimage to the borders, so the mob steps in to provide a service that cannot otherwise be met. Reading about the interactions between the government and the crime bosses is illuminating, highly entertaining, fare.
After seven months, death returns, but with a twist. As I feel I had already given too much away, I will simply say that the final chapters of the book are the best. Due to the unusual format and style of this book, my accustomed superficial critiques on literary craftsmanship are rendered meaningless and irrelevant. Mr. Saramago breaks every rule of grammar, proceeds with little character development, and winds up producing a singular work of art. This book transcends my humble judgments, and leaves me powerless to do anything less than accept and appreciate. I will say that this is not a book that I could consume in a single sitting. My mind did tire, and my concentration waned. Once refreshed, however, I couldn’t wait to dive back in and completely immerse myself in Saramago’s prose.
I give five stars and two enthusiastic thumbs up for this work. I recommend it to all readers; especially those interested in the moral and philosophical fabric of our society. But if you are not moved to ponder a single point in this profound and penetrating manuscript, you will no doubt be moved by the beautiful and very human fable Jose’ Saramago serves up for our grateful edification.
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