Jose Saramago is one of my favorite authors. I expected then, like his other works, to thoroughly enjoy Death with Interruptions.
The book opens with the line
“The following day, no one died.”
At it turns out, quite inexplicably, Death has taken a vacation. For the first seven months of the New Year no deaths are recorded, not a vehicular fatality, or a suicide, or an accidental death, or a death due to terminal cancer on a hospice ward. Hospital patients near death remain just so. Initially, the people of this unnamed European country are overjoyed. Who wouldn’t be? After all, this is what we all want, no, – the banishment of death? The government, caught with it pants down, issues a communiqué confirming the situation, calling for calm and insinuating that the people’s current state of immortality might be the exalted will of God. Of course, the Church begs to differ. The cardinal in conversation with the prime minister says
“Without death, prime minister, without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church… how could it even occur to you that god would ever will his own demise…”
Chaos ensues as months pass. Hospitals are choking up with bodies near perpetual death. Family members are desperate over providing long long term care for their terminally ill. The insurance, end-of-life and morbid industries are near collapse. The government fears the cost of a smaller younger population caring for an ever growing older and sick population. Soon a system is devised to get rid of their terminal ill family members by transporting them across the border to a neighboring country. This system involves a brokered deal between the government, the monarchy, the organized crime sector and the neighboring countries.
After seven months and quite suddenly, Death sends a letter to the government acknowledging her mistake of suspending death and
“announced an immediate return to normality, which will mean that all those people who should be dead, but who, with health or without it, nevertheless remain in the world, will have the candle of life snuffed out as the last stroke of midnight fades in the air… from now on everyone will receive due warning and be given a week to put what remains of their life in order…
The second part of the book concerns the activities of Death more directly. Death, in Saramago’s book, is the sole employee of her department. She is drowning in a mountain of paperwork in an office that I imagined was somewhere deep in the earth’s crust. It has no windows. In this office, she pulls out lists that appear from no where, addresses and sends violet envelopes to those who will die within a week. This process continues quite smoothly until “one letter comes back”. Undelivered and unopened. Death decides to investigate this glitch. She acquires a fine human form and follows the would-be recipient of the undelivered letter. The rest of book deals with the transformation that takes place within Death as she attempts to sort out the issue of the man who “must die”.
The narration, at times profound and at times ordinary, ends with death suspending her activities and with the line:
“The following day, no one died”
Once again, Jose Saramago has triumphed. I loved the book. I think Saramago, at 85 years, is having a lot of fun with his writing. Death with Interruptions is funny, witty, profound and poignant. Some of the paragraphs are the most tender and yet whimsical that I have read anywhere. A fabulous read.