When awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, the Portuguese novelist José Saramago was praised as the creator of “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony,” which afford fresh insights into the complexities of human life. His latest novel is true to the form that he has made his own. Like many of his best fictions, it asks the question “What would happen if?”
Saramago’s 1987 novel Jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft, 1995) asks “What would happen if the Iberian peninsula broke away from the European continent and floated in the Atlantic? What would change politically or economically?” His 1989 novel Historía do cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1996) asks “What would happen if a proofreader inserted the word ’not’ into a work of history?” In what may be his best-known parable, the 1995 novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness, 1997), Saramago imagines what would happen if almost everyone in a city suddenly went blind. The story was made into a feature film in 2008.
Death with Interruptions (published in England as Death at Intervals) asks the question “What would happen if people suddenly stopped dying, no matter how injured, ill, or elderly they might be?” Like Blindness, it has an essayistic quality, providing a “panoramic view” of the country rather than details about specific lives. The narrator, who occasionally identifies himself as such, neither names the characters nor describes them, but simply accounts the events of a half-year as the unnamed country descends into chaos. Many lie on their deathbeds in a state of suspended animation, the country’s queen mother among them. Hospitals become impossibly overcrowded. Gravediggers must go abroad to find work. Members of the mafia find new work and indeed perform a public service as they spirit the comatose out of the country. The military plans a coup. Churchgoers pray for the return of death.
Seven months into the crisis, another crisis occurs when the state television authority receives a letter from death, saying that normal activities will resume at midnight that night. Everyone who would have died in the first half of the year will die nowmore than sixty thousand in a country of ten million. In the future, anyone who had not been on the point of death will be given a week’s written notice before the fatal hour. The return of death is a boon for funeral directors and other idle workers and eases the crisis in old-age homes.
As life returns to normal, attention shifts to death. People study the strange letter, written on violet-colored paper. Grammarians and graphologists replace the philosophers in public speculations. All the signsthe irregular letters, “the chaotic syntax, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas,” and much moresuggest the author is a young woman. It seems incredible, but as new sightings are reported at the foot of a bed or the scene of an accident, there is confirmation. Death is more than a feminine noun, in Portuguese and the other Romance languages; death is also very human.
The rest of the novel tells death’s story, as she dashes off letters to the dying and tries to have a life of sorts, attending concerts and shopping for clothes. She has the snits and crushes one would expect of an inexperienced young woman. She is not at all the terrifying abstraction that the pundits have imagined. She is not even the supreme power; she is more like an intern or a representative. All too human, she even has something in common with the story’s narrator.
Everything the grammarian denounced in the public letterthe syntax, the comma faults, especially “the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter”can also be found in the novel. Not only titles of office but names of...
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