Thursday, May 07, 2009

Death with Interruptions by José Saramago

Satire is the use of humor to promote improvement in an individual, the government, or an institution. I have always considered Saramago’s novels to be satiric, but with a subtle streak of fun. Death with Interruptions is no exception, but the final chapters are really a hoot!

Saramago’s Blindness was a little like Camus’ The Plague, and Death is a little like Blindness in some respects. Like several of his novels, Death is set in an unnamed country, and this time the characters have no names, only titles: president, director, minister, cellist, king, and prime minister. Saramago uses long, complicated sentences with commas, periods, and an occasional apostrophe. He never uses question marks, exclamation points, or colons, semi or otherwise. The only letters capitalized are those following a period, those beginning a new statement in a conversation, and the letter I when death (not capitalized) refers to herself.

Here is an example of what I mean: “Death is sitting there, on a narrow crimson-upholstered chair, and starring fixedly at the first cellist, the one she watched while he was asleep and who wears striped pajamas, the one who owns a dog that is, at this moment, sleeping in the sun in the garden, waiting for his master to return. That is her man, a musician, nothing more, like the almost one hundred other men and women seated in a semicircle around their personal shaman, the conductor, and all of whom will, one day, in some future week or month or year, receive a violet-colored letter and leave the place empty, until some other violinist, flautist or trumpeter comes to sit in the same chair, perhaps with another shaman waving a baton to conjure forth sounds, life is an orchestra which is always playing, in tune or out, a titanic that is always sinking and always rising to the surface, and it is then that it occurs to death that she would be left with nothing to do if the sunken ship never managed to rise again, singing the evocative song sung by the waters as they cascade from her decks, like the watery song, dripping like a murmuring sigh over her undulating body, sung by the goddess amphitrite at her birth, when she becomes she who circles the seas, for that is the meaning of the name she was given” (188-89). Death has decided to send violet colored letters to individuals whom she has scheduled for death in seven days.

This excerpt constitutes two-thirds of a page of a five-page paragraph. Not exactly stream of consciousness, but it does require close attention to stay on Saramago’s wagon.

His dialogue is not broken into individual statements but is simply blended into the paragraph. Here follows a brief example of a conversation between the scythe and death, who has made a mistake and failed to deliver a letter to a man while he was forty-nine. The birthday has passed and he is still alive: “You can’t do that, said the scythe, It’s done, There’ll be consequences, Only one, What’s that, The death, at last, of that wretched cellist who’s been having a laugh at my expense. But the poor man doesn’t know he is supposed to be dead, As far as I’m concerned, he might as well know it, Even so, you don’t have the authority to change an index card, That’s where you’re wrong, I have all the power and authority I need, I’m death,” (184).

Saramago is always great fun. He also wrote The Stone Raft (Spain and Portugal float off into the Atlantic), and All the Names about a clerk in a government ministry in charge of vital statistics, who becomes obsessed with a stranger on a card stuck to one he was updating. Saramago won the Nobel Prize a few years back, and I highly recommend him for some fun, absorbing reading. 5 stars

--Chrion, 5/6/09

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