The Portugese writer José Saramago received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, in part for novelistic fables that powerfully critique social institutions and human failings. Now 86 years old, Saramago has based his latest novel, Death With Interruptions, on the extraordinary premise that the people of a small, unnamed country suddenly stop dying. Thousands of people, ranging from poor citizens to the country’s Queen Mother, linger in seemingly permanent stasis at the threshold of death.
While initially appearing to be a blessing, the moratorium on death soon presents very serious problems indeed. Families strain to care for infirm relatives who cannot die; insurance companies falter as people cancel obsolete life insurance policies; and the undertakers’ union seeks a government bailout in the form of regulations requiring the burial or cremation of all domestic animals. Realizing that critical patients will never leave his hospital, an administrator observes with unintended irony, “The situation is extremely grave.”
Larger political, moral and religious reverberations move through the country. The Catholic cardinal phones the prime minister in great consternation to say “without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church.” Economists warn that the burden of caring for the near-dead will fall upon an ever-shrinking fraction of society. A philosopher predicts impending moral chaos, because “if human beings do not die then everything will be permissible.”
Throughout this parable Saramago presents death in three successive guises. Initially death is an unseen force; then it appears as the familiar skeletal figure but holding the position of a bored bureaucrat: “She lives in a chilly room accompanied by a rusty old scythe that never replies to questions, and is surrounded only by cobwebs and a few dozen filing cabinets with large drawers stuffed with index cards.” In the novel’s final section Saramago portrays death as an attractive woman in her mid-30’s who becomes entranced with a cellist, a Prufrockian fellow who was supposed to die at age 49 but somehow has slipped into his 50th year. Death determinedly tracks the cellist down, only to become entranced with him.
The successive stages in Saramago’s portrayal of death come across as arbitrary and disjointed. Is death just another functionary asleep at the job, or is she becoming human in some unexpected, secularly redemptive transformation? The ideal Saramago reader is someone who enjoys settling in for long, philosophical musing about these questions and about the way an extended thought experiment casts light upon our contemporary situation and human nature. But by forgoing many of the conventions of character, plot and style, Saramago produces a work that is at times confusing and clunky. For example, he eschews all quotation marks to distinguish speakers within his text, and refuses to name any of his characters. The effect at times is dizzying. Without conventional narrative anchors, the novel at times seems to come unmoored.
Saramago employs an unnamed narrator, who is both omniscient and fallible, frequently admitting that he forgot to mention a crucial fact, or that he offered a bad description that must now be rephrased. While the narrator presents his own flaws as charming foibles, he offers an unstinting critique of virtually everyone else mentioned in the novel.
Read as a stylistic romp, this novel certainly is diverting, but ultimately it disappoints because of its excess of cynicism. Saramago’s narrator freely admits to “the congenital unreality of this fable,” but it is not so much the unreality that rankles as it is the replacement of serious literary/philosophical perspective with mere peevishness. Saramago uses too broad a brush to paint society’s problems, and his version of the church is particularly narrow and prejudicial. The Catholic Apostolic Church of Rome is known by the ominous-sounding acronym Cacor, and it receives the kind of treatment reserved for ogres and evil giants in fairy tales. The cardinal makes implausibly sinister generalizations such as “our speciality...has always been the neutralization of the overly curious mind through faith.”
Ordinarily the reward for a reader of innovative fiction is the ability to view the world in a kind of funhouse mirror, but this novel portrays an ultimately grim house of horrors. It is hard to imagine the reader who can attain sufficient detachment to enjoy speculative fiction about death, since death comes into our lives as anything but speculative or allegorical.
At the end of the novel Saramago offers what might be called the consolation of the cyclical, a tried-and-true device in experimental fiction whereby the novel’s conclusion leads the reader back to the novel’s beginning. This narrative tail-chasing is clever at one level, but to anyone coming from a Christian tradition of contemplating death, it will be disappointingly clear that recursion is not resurrection and that, at least in this novel, cynicism is a dead end.