Death: RIP

Reviews | published in Real Change on Dec. 3rd, 2008
Subject: José Saramago

Death with Interruptions” by José Saramago, trans. by Margaret Hull Costa, Harcourt, 2008, Hardcover, 256 pages, $24

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I’ve got a number of fantasy jobs and one is as a mortician. Embalming a body, filling out its slackened cheeks, putting the arms and legs in a suit jacket, knotting the tie; or maybe arranging for the deceased to go to a crematorium, then receiving the ashes; even talking to the grieving family and friends, helping them prepare a ceremony in the face of loss: Funeral rites fascinate me. The only reason I haven’t pursued such work is… well, I don’t know. Fear that people’ll think I’m weird, perhaps, or possibly that I’ll fall down some metaphysical rabbit hole and wind up enjoying dead folks more than the living. But, hey, given that people die all the time, at least I’d have work.

The morticians in José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions ain’t so lucky. Business is drying up now that people aren’t dying. Their bad fortune began New Year’s Day, at the stroke of midnight, when, for reasons no one can ascertain, death no longer comes a-calling. As death’s holiday extends for days, weeks, then months, the morticians consider preparing services for animals, looking for a way to keep their incomes steady.

This death-free existence suits the citizens just fine. With beloveds no longer crossing over, people adorn balconies with celebratory flags, overjoyed they’ll never have to bid their relatives adieu. But like many fantasies, the too-good-to-be-true feeling dissolves, because if people stop dying, the ones who, under normal circumstances, would have — the gravely ill, the children born in frail health, those who suffer serious accidents — will now require constant care. Add to that babies being born at a regular clip, and existence becomes a burden, the joy of never dying outstripped by the realization that life without death amounts to not much of a life at all.

On one level, this “let’s axe death” idea smacks of contrivance. How long can any author entertain a reader with the notion of no one signing off? With most writers, you could bet it’d be a short trip. But, then again, this is Saramago, the Portuguese-born Nobel Laureate we’re talking about here, which means the odds lay decidedly in his favor.

He’s worked his magic before, his most famous trick called Blindness, a terror ride of a novel where everyone, save for a single woman, goes blind, their vision obscured by a milky whiteness. Of course, it seems too obvious to suggest that people are blind on some level, but then you read the book, and you get so caught up in the hell on display — of planes falling out of the sky when pilots lose their sight, of citizens brutalizing each other during the incurable pandemic, of that lone sighted woman visiting a grocery store’s larder and having to crawl over dead bodies to find food to feed her friends — you realize you’ll follow Saramago just about anywhere. And he proved a great captain in The Stone Raft, where the Iberian peninsula, without any explanation, pulls away from the European mainland, to begin a slow voyage into the Atlantic. Yes, the premise is ridiculous, but not so the community created by a band of characters who set out to reach the floating island’s edge, opening their hearts to each other along their journey. It’s an amazing read, full of love and compassion.

At first, Death feels destined to be a dud, as the novel, without any central character(s), struggles to find its footing. In the early pages, we spend time with the church officials, who note that “the temporary and more or less lasting suspension of natural causes and effects wasn’t really a novelty, one had only to recall the infinite miracles that had happened over the last 20 centuries, the only difference, compared to what was happening now, was the sheer scale of the thing;” or the prime minister and interior minister, who, in a joint effort to curb ordinary folk ferrying their undying relations right outside the unnamed country’s borders, where death still rages, “set up a nationwide network of vigilantes, or spies, in cities, towns and villages, whose mission would be to inform the authorities of any suspicious moves made by people with close relatives in a state of suspended death.” For nearly 100 pages, it seems as if you’re going nowhere, with no one to guide you. Until the letter arrives.

Oh, that unexpected letter, scrawled on violet-colored paper placed in a violet-colored envelope, the entire correspondence set on the desk of the director-general, who, via a live TV broadcast, reads its contents to a national audience: “I wish to inform you and all those concerned that as from midnight tonight, people will start to die again.” Penned by death — who uses a lowercase “d,” thank you very much — the letter means to correct her error of opening the doorway to human eternity. Now, everyone will receive a letter a week before dying to allow time for goodbyes, though some use the announcement as an opportunity to party up. The letters reach their destinations magically, arriving shortly after death waves her skeletal hand over each day’s stack. Yet one comes back. She tries resending it. And here it comes, returned again. Over and over, as she attempts its dispatch, the letter bounces back, like undeliverable email. The intended recipient plays the cello in the local symphony, so death, after discussing the matter with her sentient scythe, dons a skirt, wig, and sunglasses, and heads out to meet the musician, the two of them…

Well, to say would unmask the great gift of the book: Saramago’s ability to present the implausible in a manner that feels completely real. It’s an undeniably different read, the book’s latter section. It possesses a magical quality, as if the first third of the book were the setup — Houdini’s assistant rolling out the tank of water that’ll hold the chained magician — and the final two-thirds, the reveal — when Houdini, somehow, winds up walking across the stage, soaking wet, chain-free, even though you know he never left that tank. Saramago, with his stylized run-on sentences, narrates with a voice that feels like a collective of wise old souls composed of members who have themselves refused to die.

It’s rare to come across a book that can restructure your comprehension of death. True, it won’t make grief any easier to bear, but when the novel’s last line appears, echoing the book’s opening — “The following day, no one died.” — it reads like the dawn of a great day. Of course, those morticians will be out of work again. But if I were an undertaker in Saramago’s lyrical world, I wouldn’t mind, even if it meant my fantasy job would meet its own death.

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