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
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.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
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.
PRAISE FOR JOSÉ SARAMAGO
"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