José Saramago, Death With Interruptions

The Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago writes mysteries—not of murder or other kinds of crime, but of logic. He takes the recognizable, everyday world and introduces an impossibility: an airborne blindness epidemic, say, or a peninsula that detaches from the European mainland and floats away. From there, he slowly teases out the myriad ways that his crisis will disrupt society as we know it, and the increasingly drastic steps humanity must take in order to stay afloat.

Saramago’s new book, Death With Interruptions, is a terrific variation on that formula, hinging on a simple question: what would happen if people stopped dying? Or, more specifically: what if, after being taken for granted for millennia, death went on strike?

The first half of the novel is an extended thought experiment, dealing mainly with logistics. Out-of-work undertakers are forced to start burying pets to make ends meet, while the Catholic Church spins into full-blown panic—without death, there can be no resurrection, and therefore no Christ story. Since the strike is confined to just one country, families clandestinely sneak their near-dead relatives across the border, where the old rules of mortality still apply.

In the second (and only slightly less exuberant) half, we meet death herself. She’s dutiful but lonely, with nobody to talk to but her scythe. Eventually she agrees to go back to work, but immediately discovers a cellist who, for some reason, she has no power over. Fearing retribution from her unknown superior, death disguises herself as a human and tries to figure out how this man has unwittingly stumbled into immortality.

Saramago reveres the cellist and playfully teases philosophers, but it is death, in her ancient wisdom and tireless work ethic, whom he sympathizes with most.

The real giveaway, though, is the way she writes her letters: “the 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.”

There is someone else who writes like that, and his name is José Saramago.

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Harcourt, 256 pp, $30.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, December 30, 2008)