Yesterday I read Death with Interruptions (published in 2008) by Jose Saramago. Saramago is a marvel of a writer, genuine and original and beautiful. This book begins with the statement that “The following day, no one died.” And so it continues for seven months in this unnamed country: within the borders of this chosen nation, no one dies. At first people are overjoyed, life everlasting, how wonderful! Only the catholic church (Saramago uses lower-case letters) laments, knowing that without the question of eternal life, no one will need religion anymore: no need for salvation when there is no death.
Saramago is a genius with words and phrases, and he uses them generously in this book. Long dialogues go on for pages with no clear delineation of who is talking and yet the conversations are very clear. Pages and pages of description wrap us in the problems engulfing the country: geometrically expanding populations of those who should be dead filling resting homes and taking over lives of caretakers; patients who won’t die overcrowding hospitals and no bodies arriving at the funeral homes; a few intrepid poor folk starting an epidemic of border-crossing to allow their sick to die, a kind of assisted suicide; and the formation of a “maphia” (to distinguish themselves from the “mafia”) to deal with the growing but indecent needs of population control.
The book is funny at times and profound at times, but it only really gets good when we meet up with some real characters, instead of being treated to titles like the prime minister, the cardinal, the minister of the interior, the director of television, and the apprentice philosopher. Although we still are not given proper names, in the final third of the book we get to know quite well both death (again, Saramago’s lower-case delineation) and her beloved, the cello player. Death becomes a very real woman, for us and for the cellist. Death’s difficulties in delivering the death blow (by letter) are both funny and moving, and surprisingly human. In the end, it is humanity that governs who lives and dies, and how.
Why a cellist? What is it about the cello that is so seductive? The music that comes from a cello is of course very deep and resonant, not unlike an immense drum that is struck with great power and sends such chills of recognition down the spine and inside the body and mind. But with the cello the power is completely auditory, not the physicality of the sound-waves but something very subtle and yet very precise, a sure stroking of our most tightly held emotions. I wrote a book in which a very nice but confused woman completely loses herself to a cellist; the cellist in Death With Interruptions is a much better soul, all in all, and yet just as powerful a seducer.
Death with Interruptions was translated by Margaret Jull Costa.