Death with Interruptions

Death with Interruptions

3.7 36
by José Saramago

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Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago's brilliant new novel poses the question -- what happens when the grim reaper decides there will be no more death? On the first day of the new year, no one dies. This of course causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, morticians, and doctors. Among the general public, on the other hand, there is initially…  See more details below


Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago's brilliant new novel poses the question -- what happens when the grim reaper decides there will be no more death? On the first day of the new year, no one dies. This of course causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, morticians, and doctors. Among the general public, on the other hand, there is initially celebration—flags are hung out on balconies, people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity: eternal life. Then reality hits home—families are left to care for the permanently dying, life-insurance policies become meaningless, and funeral parlors are reduced to arranging burials for pet dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots.
Death sits in her chilly apartment, where she lives alone with scythe and filing cabinets, and contemplates her experiment: What if no one ever died again? What if she, death with a small d, became human and were to fall in love?

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
If this sounds campy, it is, but Saramago is always ten steps ahead of us, subverting cliches, interjecting ancient philosophical concerns into his gags and scattering grenades of bitterness among the laughs…This is a story that can't possibly work or affect us, but it does, deeply, sweetly. It's a novel to die for.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Saramago's philosophical page-turner hinges on death taking a holiday. And, Saramago being Saramago, he turns what could be the stuff of late-night stoner debate into a lucid, playful and politically edgy novel of ideas. For reasons initially unclear, people stop dying in an unnamed country on New Year's Day. Shortly after death begins her break (death is a woman here), there's "a catastrophic collapse" in the funeral industry; disruption in hospitals of "the usual rotational process of patients coming in, getting better or dying"; and general havoc. There's much debate and discussion on the link between death, resurrection and the church, and while "the clandestine traffic of the terminally ill" into bordering countries leads to government collusion with the criminal "self-styled maphia," death falls in love with a terminally ill cellist. Saramago adds two satisfying cliffhangers-how far can he go with the concept, and will death succumb to human love? The package is profound, resonant and-bonus-entertaining. (Oct.)

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Library Journal

Death never sleeps, but in Saramago's world there is the possibility that she might decide to try. As in his masterpiece, Blindness, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner begins by altering an immutable aspect of the human condition: for seven months in an unnamed country, beginning on New Year's Day, people cease to die. The "long digression" that opens the novel is a series of satirical sketches that describe the reaction of different sections of society to this development. Funeral homes transition to burying domestic animals, the local "maphia" profits from the illegal transport of ailing citizens across the border into countries where death still functions, and economists publish alarming articles about "permanent disability pensions." Though the novel finds the right balance between the absurd and the profound, it is saved from sinking beneath an excess of cleverness only by the emergence of a memorable protagonist 100 pages in. This is death herself (she prefers a lowercase "d"), who, in a letter written on violet-colored stationery, explains the reasons for her disappearance. One of our greatest living writers, Saramago continues to produce stimulating and multifaceted work well into his eighties. Recommended for all libraries.
—Forest Turner

Kirkus Reviews
When Portugal's Jose Saramago received the 1998 Nobel Prize, it seemed a fitting climactic acknowledgement of a brilliant career of a stubbornly independent genius who-like Tolstoy and Verdi and Picasso in their times, the late Saul Bellow and the ever underrated Hortense Calisher in our own-had demonstrated unimpaired creative power well into old age. Saramago's time to be thrust onto the pantheon had come, it seemed, just as his working life must be nearing its end. His 80th year was approaching, and he had dominated the international scene with an imposing succession of recent masterpieces, crowned by his luminous 1995 novel Blindness, an ingenious Orwellian parable soon to become even better known in acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles's forthcoming film. But Saramago wasn't done, and increasingly complex, mischievous, astonishingly inventive books kept coming: a reimagining of Plato's classic allegory in which a humble artisan's graceful creations fall victim to punitive government restrictions-until he fights back (The Cave); the voyage of discovery shared by exact physical likenesses, during which both men are challenged, and fulfilled (The Double); a forthright political satire (Seeing, developed from the elements of Blindness), wherein a stiff-necked government is panicked, and given a salutary comeuppance, when a majority of its citizens rise up in protest and refuse to vote in a major election. Much of Saramago's biography is in his books: his unconventional writing life, begun early, then suspended for several decades while he supported himself as an auto mechanic, teacher, translator and journalist (before the critical success of his 1992 historical romance Baltasar andBlimunda); his avowed Communism and atheism (incarnated in the intricate sociopolitical texture of his finest novel A Year in the Death of Ricardo Reis and his serenely inflammatory The Gospel According to Jesus Christ); and his contempt for stultifying xenophobia and bureaucratic obtuseness (given memorable symbolic form in The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names). The author looms again, we infer, in Death with Interruptions, in which a universe of dramatic possibility exfoliates from its stunning, cunning opening sentence: "The following day, no one died." The premise's development occupies the novel's first half, featuring an unnamed country's contrivance-with the aid of organized crime-to shuttle inconveniently terminally ill survivors across its borders (where the moribund keep dying, as usual) and handle the complaints of hospitals, morticians and other providers of essential services threatened with financial ruin. Then, in a spectacular tonal and thematic shift, Death herself becomes the protagonist, and the nature of her intimacy with humans becomes the vehicle for a thrilling threnody composed of grief, love (for that which cannot last) and a resigned, muted acceptance of the inevitable. Simultaneously, we may sense we hear the voice of a great artisan who may not have shown us the last of his creations; who instead whispers his promise: Not just yet, there's more to be told.
From the Publisher


"Saramago is arguably the greatest writer of our time . . . He has the power to throw a dazzling flash of lightning on his subjects, an eerily and impossibly prolonged moment of clarity that illuminates details beyond the power of sunshine to reveal."—Chicago Tribune

"Reading the Portuguese writer José Saramago, one quickly senses the presence of a master."—The Christian Science Monitor

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The following day, no one died. this fact, beingabsolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in
the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds,
for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of
universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary
case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole
day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty- four hours,
diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one
death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one,
not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on
festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of
alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach
death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual
calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great
bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day. There
was, however, no shortage of blood. Bewildered, confused, distraught,
struggling to control their feelings of nausea, the firemen
extracted from the mangled remains wretched human
bodies that, according to the mathematical logic of the collisions,
should have been well and truly dead, but which, despite
the seriousness of the injuries and lesions suffered, remained
alive and were carried off to hospital, accompanied by the shrill
sound of the ambulance sirens. None of these people would die
along the way and all would disprove the most pessimistic of
medical prognoses, There’s nothing to be done for the poor
man, it’s not even worth operating, a complete waste of time,
said the surgeon to the nurse as she was adjusting his mask. And
the day before, there would probably have been no salvation for
this particular patient, but one thing was clear, today, the victim
refused to die. And what was happening here was happening
throughout the country. Up until the very dot of midnight
on the last day of the year there were people who died in full
compliance with the rules, both those relating to the nub of
the matter, i.e. the termination of life, and those relating to the
many ways in which the aforementioned nub, with varying degrees
of pomp and solemnity, chooses to mark the fatal moment.
One particularly interesting case, interesting because of
the person involved, was that of the very ancient and venerable
queen mother. At one minute to midnight on the thirty- first of
december, no one would have been so ingenuous as to bet a
spent match on the life of the royal lady. With all hope lost, with
the doctors helpless in the face of the implacable medical evidence,
the royal family, hierarchically arranged around the bed,
waited with resignation for the matriarch’s last breath, perhaps
a few words, a final edifying comment regarding the moral ed-
ucation of the beloved princes, her grandsons, perhaps a beautiful,
well- turned phrase addressed to the ever ungrateful memory
of future subjects. And then, as if time had stopped, nothing
happened. The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated,
she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering
on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip
over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous
thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it
could only have been death, continued to keep hold. We had
passed over to the next day, and on that day, as we said at the
beginning of this tale, no one would die.
     It was already late afternoon when the rumor began to
spread that, since the beginning of the new year, or more precisely
since zero hour on this first day of january, there was no
record in the whole country of anyone dying. You might think,
for example, that the rumor had its origins in the queen mother’s
surprising resistance to giving up the little life that was left to
her, but the truth is that the usual medical bulletin issued to the
media by the palace’s press office not only stated that the general
state of the royal patient had shown visible signs of improvement
during the night, it even suggested, indeed implied,
choosing its words very carefully, that there was a chance that
her royal highness might be restored to full health. In its initial
form, the rumor might also have sprung, naturally enough,
from an undertaker’s, No one seems to want to die on this first
day of the new year, or from a hospital, That fellow in bed
twenty- seven can’t seem to make up his mind one way or the
other, or from a spokesman for the traffic police, It’s really odd,
you know, despite all the accidents on the road, there hasn’t been
a single death we can hold up as a warning to others. The rumor,
whose original source was never discovered, although, of course,
this hardly mattered in the light of what came afterward, soon
reached the newspapers, the radio and the television, and immediately
caused the ears of directors, assistant directors and
editors- in- chief to prick up, for these are people not only
primed to sniff out from afar the major events of world history,
they’re also trained in the ability, when it suits, to make those
events seem even more major than they really are. In a matter
of minutes, dozens of investigative journalists were out on the
street asking questions of any joe schmo who happened by, while
the ranks of telephones in the throbbing editorial offices stirred
and trembled in an identical investigatory frenzy. Calls were
made to hospitals, to the red cross, to the morgue, to funeral directors,
to the police, yes, all of them, with the understandable
exception of the secret branch, but the replies given could be
summed up in the same laconic words, There have been no
deaths. A young female television reporter had more luck when
she interviewed a passer- by, who kept glancing alternately at her
and at the camera, and who described his personal experience,
which was identical to what had happened to the queen mother,
The church clock was striking midnight, he said, when, just before
the last stroke, my grandfather, who seemed on the very
point of expiring, suddenly opened his eyes as if he’d changed
his mind about the step he was about to take, and didn’t die.
The reporter was so excited by what she’d heard that, ignoring
all his pleas and protests, No, senhora, I can’t, I have to go to the
chemist’s, my grandfather’s waiting for his prescription, she
bundled him into the news car, Come with me, your grandfather
doesn’t need prescriptions any more, she yelled, and ordered the
driver to go straight to the television studio, where, at that precise
moment, everything was being set up for a debate between
three experts on paranormal phenomena, namely, two highly
regarded wizards and a celebrated clairvoyant, hastily summoned
to analyze and give their views on what certain wags, the
kind who have no respect for anything, were already beginning
to refer to as a death strike. The bold reporter was, however, laboring
under the gravest of illusions, for she had interpreted the
words of her interviewee as meaning that the dying man had,
quite literally, changed his mind about the step he was about to
take, namely, to die, cash in his chips, kick the bucket, and so
had decided to turn back. Now, the words that the happy grandson
had pronounced, As if he’d changed his mind, were radically
different from a blunt, He changed his mind. An elementary
knowledge of syntax and a greater familiarity with the elastic
subtleties of tenses would have avoided this blunder, as well as
the subsequent dressing- down that the poor girl, scarlet with
shame and humiliation, received from her immediate superior.
Little could they, either he or she, have imagined that these
words, repeated live by the interviewee and heard again in
recorded form on that evening’s news bulletin, would be interpreted
in exactly the same mistaken way by millions of people,
and that an immediate and disconcerting consequence of this
would be the creation of a group firmly convinced that with the
simple application of will-power they, too, could conquer death
and that the undeserved disappearance of so many people in the
past could be put down solely to a deplorable weakness of will
on the part of previous generations. But things would not stop
there. People, without having to make any perceptible effort,
continued not to die, and so another popular mass movement,
endowed with a more ambitious vision of the future, would declare
that humanity’s greatest dream since the beginning of time,
the happy enjoyment of eternal life here on earth, had become
a gift within the grasp of everyone, like the sun that rises every
day and the air that we breathe. Although the two movements
were both competing, so to speak, for the same electorate, there
was one point on which they were able to agree, and that was
on the nomination as honorary president, given his eminent status
as pioneer, of the courageous veteran who, at the final moment,
had defied and defeated death. As far as anyone knows,
no particular importance would be given to the fact that grandpa
remained in a state of profound coma, which everything seems
to indicate is irreversible.
     Although the word crisis is clearly not the most appropriate
one to describe these extraordinary events, for it would be
absurd, incongruous and an affront to the most basic logic to
speak of a crisis in an existential situation that has been privileged
by the absence of death, one can understand why some
citizens, zealous of their right to know the truth, are asking
themselves, and each other, what the hell is going on with the
government, who have so far given not the slightest sign of life.
When asked in passing during a brief interval between two
meetings, the minister for health had, it is true, explained to
journalists that, bearing in mind that they lacked sufficient information
to form a judgment, any official statement would, inevitably,
be premature, We are collating data being sent to us
from all over the country, he added, and it’s true to say that no
deaths have been reported, but, as you can imagine, we have
been as surprised as everyone else by this turn of events and are
not as yet ready to formulate an initial theory about the origins
of the phenomenon or about its immediate and future implications.
He could have left the matter there, which, considering
the difficulties of the situation, would have been a cause for gratitude,
but the well- known impulse to urge people to keep calm
about everything and nothing and to remain quietly in the fold
whatever happens, this tropism which, among politicians, especially
if they’re in government, has become second nature, not
to say automatic or mechanical, led him to conclude the conversation
in the worst possible way, As minister responsible for
health, I can assure everyone listening that there is absolutely no
reason for alarm, If I understand you correctly, remarked the
journalist in a tone that tried hard not to appear too ironic, the
fact that no one is dying is, in your view, not in the least alarming,
Exactly, well, those may not have been my precise words,
but, yes, that, essentially, is what I said, May I remind you, minister,
that people were dying even yesterday and it would never
have occurred to anyone to think that alarming, Of course not,
it’s normal to die, and dying only becomes alarming when
deaths multiply, during a war or an epidemic, for example,
When things depart from the norm, You could put it like that,
yes, But in the current situation, when, apparently, no one is
prepared to die, you call on us not to be alarmed, would you not
agree with me, minister, that such an appeal is, at the very least,
somewhat paradoxical, It was mere force of habit, and I recognize
that I shouldn’t have applied the word alarm to the current
situation, So what word would you use, minister, I only ask because,
as the conscientious journalist I hope I am, I always try,
where possible, to use the exact term. Slightly irritated by the
journalist’s insistence, the minister replied abruptly, I would use
not one word, but six, And what would those be, minister, Let
us not foster false hopes. This would doubtless have provided a
good, honest headline for the newspaper the following day, but
the editor- in- chief, having consulted his managing editor,
thought it inadvisable, from the business point of view as well,
to throw this bucket of icy water over the prevailing mood of
enthusiasm, Let’s go for the usual headline, New Year, New Life,
he said.
     In the official communiqué, broadcast late that night, the
prime minister confirmed that no deaths had been recorded
anywhere in the country since the beginning of the new year, he
called for moderation and a sense of responsibility in any evaluations
and interpretations of this strange fact...

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

"Saramago is arguably the greatest writer of our time . . . He has the power to throw a dazzling flash of lightning on his subjects, an eerily and impossibly prolonged moment of clarity that illuminates details beyond the power of sunshine to reveal."—Chicago Tribune "Reading the Portuguese writer José Saramago, one quickly senses the presence of a master."—The Christian Science Monitor

Meet the Author

JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

MARGARET JULL COSTA has established herself as the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English today.

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