Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

As a reviewer, there are two things you’ll want to know about me before bothering to read further. I only like literary fiction, and I only like literary fiction that’s a bit “difficult,” in one way or another, style or theme, preferably both.

A good theme for me might include controversial social issues, human paradoxes, ethical puzzles– problems to which there are no easy solutions. The concerns of unmarried 32-year-old woman and the plight of a middle-aged man whose affair is petering out are not real “problems,” in my view, nor is the temporary loss of faith in God or humanity.

A good style for me pays attention to the sounds of words; it’s poetic. I like uncommon words as these tend to be a little more fresh (they make you look harder) and concise. I dislike intensely “transparent” narration, and I prefer first-person narratives, with plenty of thoughts described. In my opinion, the most important function novels serve is that they allow one to vicariously experience another’s point of view. I like narrators with plenty of personality.

And, if this isn’t a third thing, a writer that has all of the above ought also to have a good sense of irony and humor.

Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions is thematically appealing to me. It is a comedy (and not really a dark one, despite its subject), whose main protagonist (in the first half of the book) is a society, not a person, a society whom death has decided to abandon. The main problem is itself common; it is the question of euthanasia. Is it moral to help people die or not? The way Saramago explores this problem is original, to say the least. He makes it necessary for an entire country to respond, as a country, to this question. The citizens cling to their feeling that life is sacred, even though under the new circumstances it would be wiser to admit that death is sorely missed. The best parts of the book occur when the omniscient narrator momentarily dips down close to a single family who take their perpetually dying patriarch and infant child across the border where death is still active. This family’s problem is complex and terrible, and they face it with dignity and care. But this passage is brief. Most of the time the narrator describes the mind of a group. Groups are usually dull-witted and predictable compared to individuals.

Stylistically, the novel is plain, or at least the English translation by Margaret Jull Costa is. But the narrator does have a personality. He’s got a good ironic sense of humor. He’s kind to the people he satirizes, and he is not above any of the human foibles he describes.

In the second half the protagonist death falls in love with a man she fails to kill. There are two lessons: society learns not to take death for granted: she’s needed. Death learns what its like to not want to lose someone. In sum, it does not have everything I want in a novel, but it’s a nice little fable, gently told.

(See more about euthanasia at Naked Singularity.)

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