Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

Phew, I'm not sure where to start with this one. Ok, let me begin with the writing style. I don't recall reading a book that has forced me to look up so many words, ever, and what is weird with this is that it is a translated book! From page one, I was researching "matutinal", then on to terms like "bactrachian" and "lucubrations"...but wait a minute, there was also "joe schmoe". Seriously, is there a Portugese equivalent to joe schmoe? I haven't even learned these words in English yet (except for joe schmoe, I've heard that one before) nevermind what their equivalents would be elsewhere in the world. I was fascinated! Then there were the "paragraphs", and I use quotations here because some of them ran on for four or more pages, quite often only including only 3 or so sentences. The author completely puts my comma usage to shame! There are also no quotations used in the book. Most sentences were the largest of run-ons I've ever come across but also containing the dialogue only separated by the commas and the change of speaker only indicated by a capital letter....God help us if a statement of dialogue began with "I", then all was almost lost. I have never experienced anything like Death with Interruptions before but I feel infinitely smarter for having read it.

Jose Saramago touches on all facets imaginable and unimaginable, if, for some reason, death (the small "d" in the name is important) just didn't work anymore. From the effects on the insurance and mortuary businesses to the precarious border situations with neighbouring countries (when it has been realized that death will still occur if the sick that can't die in one country are taken across the border to another country to finalize the deed.) He even gives an arguement, by mathematical calculations (not the actual math, but the common sense to the numbers approach) that shows in certain cases, euthanasia is more than acceptable, it's a necessary solution. My mind reels (and probably will for some time) with the implications as described by the author.

Mr. Saramago leaves no stone unturned, from the government's constant attempts to cover its ass (including dealings with the maphia ("with a distiguish...from the original mafia...") to the Catholic church working on new dogma to explain why something (eternal life) that "was once bestowed as a favor to one individual...had been replaced by a depersonalized, global gift..." . We see the micro and macro (potential) effects from responsibilities at home to those in nursing homes and hospitals (there are so many old people now that they're being put in attics) and finally, to the overall fiscal damage involved.

But this book is not all thinly veiled accusations at these establishments. It also includes some harsh, sad realities, as, early in the story, a mere infant is on the verge of death but is unable to succumb to it. It's a heartbreaking tale yet sarcastically, ironically witty. So much thought appears to have gone into this work that I'm amazed it didn't span several volumes. Our constant ventures to search for fountains of youth or eternal life are systematically criticized and contradicted by common sense.

Death begins a new routine to notify people, giving them a weeks notice prior to their death. Then the author points out the absurdity of it all describing how she gets out of sealing envelopes by licking them (because death has no lips, only bone, right?) with the new "technology" of self-seal envelopes. Death then begins to ponder email as a more reliable source of delivery. There is a timeless feel that is contradicted by these elements, in weird. anachronistic twists. The spin involved is often humorous yet all too true (in the nonsensical sense.)

Mr Saramago also delights in the breaking down of certain common turns-of-phrase, demonstrating how misleading they can be. I think the only statement he didn't tear down was that of "The only sure things in life are death and taxes", but what he did was virtually eliminate one of these certainties.

By the end, I felt sorry for death, poor thing that she is. This was the power of the writing in this book. I was confused about the timing of the story, though, as the letters mentioned above were implimented many months after her original work stoppage yet the stoppage occurred by an undeliverable letter and her follow-up investigation into why. The whole of it seems to contradict itself. My only conclusion is that it's Mr. Saramago's final attempt to mess with the reader, which he seems to have done fairly well through the book's entirety.

Death with Interruptions is an adventure in thought, life and the English language (and many other languages, too) but most definitely not a light-weight read. While at times it was a bit draining, overall I very much enjoyed it.


Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

This sounds fascinating, though a lot of work to read. I have blindness on my shelf, but I haven't gotten to it yet.

Jackie said...

Stephanie - I keep hearing about Blindness and may read it one day but will have to make sure I can dedicate the time Saramago's work requires, lol.

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