Death Takes a Holiday

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By Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, October 26, 2008


By José Saramago

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Harcourt. 238 pp. $24

No matter how deadly serious his subjects, there's always been something essentially childlike at the heart of José Saramago's work -- that eagerness to consider simple, outlandish what if s: What if the Iberian Peninsula broke off and floated away? What if everybody suddenly went blind? What if most voters cast blank ballots?

Like Franz Kafka, his literary ancestor, the unrepentant Portuguese communist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for literature frequently focuses on the way people react to absurd situations. In Death with Interruptions, there's even a goofy touch of Woody Allen's "Don't Drink the Water," but this may be Saramago's most cosmic novel. While not as aggressively heretical as The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which provoked such outrage from the Catholic Church in 1991, his new book asks us to imagine a cessation of "the most normal and ordinary thing in life": dying. If you don't think such speculation is amusing, well, get your own Nobel Prize.

The story opens at the start of a new year in a small, unnamed modern country. As is typical of the allegorical universalism in much of Saramago's work, we never get a precise location or time period. The frenetic, amiable narrator refers to characters only by each one's generic function: e.g. prime minister, mother, editor. All of them are confronting the most unusual nonevent in human history: "No one died. . . . 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."

Initially, this "death strike" seems like "humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time," but the horrible ramifications quickly become apparent: Traffic accidents still leave people mangled; illness strikes with the same ferocity; old age continues to ravage.

The first section of the novel describes "the ditherings of the government" trying to deal with this calamity. No writer since Orwell has zeroed in with such precision and vigor on the language of self-serving administrators, and Death with Interruptions contains some of Saramago's best satire about government corruption, military jingoism and media hysteria. Whole pages of this novel seem lifted from the recent news about our own economic crisis. The prime minister takes to the airways to make a statement "whose very incomprehensibility was intended to calm the commotion gripping the nation."

Religious leaders come off no better, reacting to the situation with a flurry of obfuscation and sophistry: "The church has never been asked to explain anything," the cardinal assures the prime minister. "Our specialty, along with ballistics, has always been the neutralization of the overly curious mind through faith." As the crisis grows more severe, the clergy "organize a national campaign of prayer, asking god to bring about the return of death as quickly as possible."

Much of this section focuses on the political and economic upheaval caused by eternal life, as the country tries to adjust to living bodies piling up, "one on top of the other, like the leaves that fall from the trees onto the leaves from previous autumns." Various industries -- life insurance, hospitals, undertakers, retirement homes -- lobby aggressively for government relief. But there are scenes of real pathos here, too, amid the gallows humor: the personal costs of caring for so many desperately sick relatives, the horrible choices faced by burdened families, the nasty bargains they're forced to make with organized crime.

Halfway through, just as the satire is getting a little tedious, the novel shifts away from its national scope to concentrate instead on the Grim Reaper in disarmingly personal terms. It turns out that death (lowercase "d," she insists) is a discreet, elegant woman, if you can get past the skeleton and the sheet. She's conscientious and efficient, but still uses fine stationery rather than e-mail. "It has the charm of tradition," she tells her scythe, "and tradition counts for a lot when it comes to dying." The duty of dispensing with so many people day after day is "not exactly a killingly hard job," but it can grow tedious. "Death did indeed work her fingers to the bone," the narrator notes, "because, of course, she is all bone." Who could blame her for taking a little time off? If this sounds campy, it is, but Saramago is always ten steps ahead of us, subverting clichés, interjecting ancient philosophical concerns into his gags and scattering grenades of bitterness among the laughs.

After death's seven-month vacation, she devises a new scheme to dispense with human beings: She'll send people a letter on violet paper, announcing that they have a week left to live, "to sort out their affairs, make a will, pay their back taxes and say goodbye to their family and to their closest friends. In theory, this seemed like a good idea." But of course, in practice it raises all sorts of complications for the "preposthumous."

The real surprise, though, is death's. When one of her violet letters -- to a middle-aged cellist -- is returned unopened, she's alarmed, then intrigued. "How on earth am I going to get out of this fix," she wonders. "Poor death." And here Saramago catches us off guard once again, turning from the straight-faced absurdity of the novel's first section to a poignant romance. How can the most tender relationship that Saramago has ever written involve death as a nervous lover? This is a story that can't possibly work or affect us, but it does, deeply, sweetly. It's a novel to die for. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at

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