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Originally published Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Death takes a holiday in "Death with Interruptions"

Death takes an extended vacation — with problematic results — in the latest novel by Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago, author of "Blindness."

Seattle Times book critic

"Death with Interruptions"

by José Saramago,

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Harcourt, 238 pp., $24

Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago has a fondness for what-if premises.

His most famous novel, "Blindness" (basis for the new film by Fernando Meirelles), explored what would happen if an epidemic of blindness spread through society. The fallout wasn't pretty — and it didn't smell good, either, as personal hygiene took a nosedive.

In his new novel, "Death with Interruptions," Saramago, now in his 80s, ponders the consequences if death were to take a holiday for six months or so. The book is more compact and playful than "Blindness" — yet in many ways it's more profound. His conclusion: We need our mortality more than we may realize.

The book starts out with a simple enough statement: "The following day, no one died."

This doesn't usher in the eternal paradise one might expect, even though much of the population in the nameless, landlocked country where the story takes place greets the disappearance of death with a "high tide of collective joy."

So what's the problem? Mangled accident victims who should, by all rights, be dead linger on. And the absence of death doesn't usher in any absence of sickness or aging. Hospitals keep filling up with the unwell but immortal. Families find themselves caring for an ever-greater number of invalids — forever.

Death's vanishing creates havoc with the life-insurance industry, the funeral-home industry, the royal family and the Catholic Church. ("Without death," a cardinal pronounces, "there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church.") And it raises questions about how the government will be able to cope with the ever-larger number of retirees living on state pensions.

As the country's coolheaded prime minister explains: "If we don't start dying again, we have no future."


Fortunately, there's a safety outlet. Death is still alive and well, so to speak, in the countries neighboring Saramago's imaginary realm. It isn't long before some victims of "this recently inaugurated eternity" are being transported across the border — some willingly, some not — to breathe their last.

Saramago clearly isn't interested in character-driven fiction. Instead, it's the behavior of institutions that fascinates him. There are some lively figures in the book, most notably that prime minister whose "sangfroid" during this crisis is much remarked upon. But it's the government, the church and even organized crime that are Saramago's main players — at least in the book's first half.

In its second half, "death" (always with a lowercase "d") shows her hand (yes, she's female), and a different kind of story unfolds. After opening back up for business, she decides to give individuals weeklong notices of their impending dooms. But this too leads to problems, especially where a certain humble symphony cellist is concerned.

Throughout the book Saramago, by so fancifully distorting reality, paradoxically unveils reality, shining a stark light on how we live and organize our lives. In the process he aims gleeful salvos at the institutions that shape our perceptions of our surroundings, whether he's pondering the church's "neutralization of the overly curious mind through faith" or weighing the modus operandi of journalists ("not only primed to sniff out from afar the major events of world history [but] trained in the ability, when it suits, to make those events seem even more major than they really are").

He takes care to mock himself while he's at it. Saramago is known for his challenging prose style, with its acrobatically long sentences, even longer paragraphs and minimally signaled dialogue (no quotation marks, no line breaks). It seems that death, when penning her missives, is a writer in the Saramago mold, and she comes under harsh criticism for her "chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter."

True, on almost every count.

But in Saramago's hands, and in translator Margaret Jull Costa's translation of his challenging Portuguese text into English, the thorny nature of his prose delivers its own distinctive pleasures and rewards. And the mind at work is never less than invigorating.

Michael Upchurch: He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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