I just turned the last page of Margaret Jull Costa’s English translation of Jose Saramago’s novel Death with Interruptions. If you haven’t read it yet then you may want to stop reading this post now, as there are spoilers below mixed with some of my thoughts. They’re pretty mild and shouldn’t detract from a first reading too much; you’ve been given fair warning, though!
The novel is a very enjoyable read which consists of two connected stories. The first is a political and social commentary told through various government figures as they deal with the repercussions of a particularly strange crisis: the citizen’s of their country have stopped dying. Gradually the role of death, with a lowercase d and personified as a female, plays a larger and larger role in matters. Midway through the book death resumes her duties and a new crisis arises: she is not able to deliver news of a male cellist’s impending death. At this point the book shifts into the second story, which is a more personal love affair between death and the cellist. The first half of the book was entertaining, but I found the second half to be absolutely spectacular. The last chapter in particular stands, in my opinion, as one of the greatest pieces of writing. It could easily be read as a wonderful short story on its own.
A few choice quotations from the novel stick in my mind, so I’d like to record them below for posterity. The first quotation is from the fourth chapter; a department head of some branch of government has just passed an important audio cassette to his superior, who in turn has brought it to the minister of the interior:
Half an hour later, the cassette was in the hands of the interior minister. He listened, listened again, listened a third time and then asked, Is this department head to be trusted, Well, replied the superior, up until now I’ve never had the slightest reason for complaint, Nor the greatest, I hope, Neither great nor small, said the superior, who had failed to catch the irony.
Superb! The second quotation is from a parable in the fifth chapter about a grandfather, father and son. In it, the father consigned the grandfather to eating on the porch from a wooden bowl, due to his sloppiness at the dinner table. Later, when the father spotted the boy whittling some wood, he asked his son
What are you making. The boy pretended he hadn’t heard and continued whittling away at the wood with the point of his knife, this happened in the days when parents were less fearful and wouldn’t immediately snatch from their children’s hands such a useful fool for making toys. Didn’t you hear me, I asked what you’re making with that piece of wood, the father asked again, and his son, without glancing up from what he was doing, replied, I’m making a bowl for when you’re old and your hands shake and you’re sent to sit on the front step to eat your meals, like you did with grandpa.
The parable definitely needs to be read in entirety to be fully appreciated, but I think the rebuke above about overly cautious parenting is masterfully blended inside the old-fashioned morality tale. This type of guerilla social commentary is a common device used by Saramago.
I had originally intended to share a third quotation from the last chapter, but I don’t wish to spoil too much. So I’ll just stop here instead.