Monday, December 22, 2008
monday book review: death with interruptions, by jose saramago
I've been done with this book for ages, but this has been a particularly difficult book review to write for some reason. Timing, I think, is certainly playing its part. My Grandpa is pretty sick at the moment, and so reading and/or discussing a book about death isn't really something I've been over the moon to do.  Go figure, right?

Nonetheless, I think the larger issue lies not with the subject matter, but with the author. For all his problems with sentence construction and characterization, Saramago is widely considered to be a genius.  In fact, Harold Bloom went so far as to call him "the most gifted novelist alive in the world today."  Thus, I can't help but sort of feel like the problem must lie, at least in part, with me, the reader, if I happen to really dislike one of his books.  

And let's be clear from the beginning - I really disliked this book.

On the surface, Death with Interruptions contains all of Saramago's trademark qualities: it's more fable than novel, the characters are widely unnamed and under-developed, he writes sentences that run-on for days, and it possesses a deep level of sociological insightfulness.  But while some of these qualities can be perceived as criticisms, they can and have worked in his favor.  Take Blindness, for instance.  It was brilliant, despite its "flaws."  The characters in that story remained unnamed and rather vague throughout the narrative, and yet I still found myself able to care for and about them.  I assume that the point there was to present more character types than actual characters - to explore how society as a whole would react to such a catastrophe, and so keeping them half-formed was a masterful decision that totally worked for the story he was trying to tell.  Since Death with Interruptions is a similar sort of sociological story - asking what would happen if there was suddenly no more death - one might think that using the same sort of tools would produce similar results.  But they didn't for some reason.  And I'm not sure if I can point to why, exactly.

The novel's premise is certainly an interesting one.  What if no one died? Death is hated, however necessary.  As Saramago illustrates, without it population soars, the sick linger on in a horrible sort of half-life, religion loses its purpose, organized crime thrives and the economy suffers.  However, I'm not sure Saramago is telling us anything none of us don't already know.  Obviously, death is a necessary evil, and stories of this sort have been told before.  Furthermore, the characters were left so vague and the story such an overview, that it was hard for me to feel invested in what was going on.

Then, half-way through, the novel switched gears.  While the first half focused on the societal implications of there suddenly being no death, the second half focused on death itself - this time, through personification of the concept.  Death decides to resume her work, though she now gives everyone two weeks notice.  This notice presents its own problems, but the real story in this second half is that death (small "d") finds herself (a woman, of course) unable to kill a cellist for reasons she can not understand.  The novel's two halves are not connected well, and I was never particularly clear on what point Saramago was trying to make with the cellist story.  By the end, I was bored and forcing myself to finish.

Again, maybe the problem is with me.  Maybe Death with Interruptions is genius and I'm the idiot who just didn't "get" it.  However, I suspect this isn't really the case.  I suspect that I'm right - that this is not one of his strongest efforts and that it contains some very real problems that many readers will overlook because of the author's acclaim.

Overall, fervent Saramago fans will certainly want to check it out, however first-time readers of his work would do best to start with a different work.

Jose Saramago
2008, 256 pages

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