Death With Interruptions

By José Saramago

Translated by

Margaret Jull Costa

Harcourt. 256 pp. $24.


Reviewed by Jane Smiley


Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago was born in 1922. He celebrated his 86th birthday a few weeks ago. I mention this because it is rare for a novelist to get to 86, still writing. It is rarer still for him to maintain his sense of humor, as Saramago has done. What is not rare for an extra-mature novelist is the contemplation of death, but Saramago is straightforward about that one.

Nevertheless, if we are looking for a run-of-the-mill lament or a "death be not proud" exclamation of defiance,

Death With Interruptions

isn't it. Saramago isn't afraid of death, just as in his 1991 novel,

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

, he wasn't afraid of Jesus. He just wants to think about death, and his thoughts are seductive and illuminating.

Saramago is nothing if not a perennial surprise. I say "Saramago" rather than "Saramago's novels" because the perennial surprise is not in his plots (though they are often quite imaginative), but in how his mind works, how his voice, intimate and good-natured, but relentless, takes up one idea after another, weaves it into the narrative, and goes on, always seeming to keep track of what he has said before, always seeming to know just where he is going next, always even-tempered, always a step ahead of the reader, who can't help turning pages.

The premise of

Death With Interruptions

is that a certain small nation, population 10 million, wakes up one New Year's Day to discover that no one has died. The most terminal illnesses have failed to terminate; the most gruesome injuries have failed to kill. It becomes clear almost immediately that every national institution, but especially the Roman Catholic Church, the philosophical establishment, and the funeral homes, must now go out of business, while the barely living are going to pile up in "eventide homes" into eternity. The end of death has nationwide ramifications.

And then one poor family realizes that it can transport grandpa, who is so ill that he demands to die, and grandson, also terminal, across the border. The border has a miraculous effect: Old man and little boy die peacefully and are buried together beneath a large ash tree. But then the word gets out (nosy neighbors), and the criminal underground takes over the death business. The ramifications become international.

In the midst of this chaos, a lavender-colored letter appears on the desk of the director of the national TV station, declaring that death will resume that night at midnight, but that, as an act of mercy, each death will be preceded by a week's notice, in the form of lavender-colored letters delivered to unsuspecting citizens by the postman. The author of these new procedures is death, herself (she is very particular about her name's being spelled with a lower-case

d

).

But, as Saramago points out, like any functionary bored with her job, death has fiddled with things without having read the rulebook or understood the system.

The only being death has to confide in is her scythe, whom she considers a rather passive person, but she marshals her forces (literally), makes a foray into the world, and is herself surprised.

In her 2007 interview with Saramago for the New York Times Magazine, Fernanda Eberstadt found the author "austere." His countrymen, when asked, used the words

cold, arrogant

and

unsympathetic

. An unreconstructed communist in a self-congratulatory capitalist era, Saramago goes his own way and thinks his own thoughts. They are original and intriguing ones - therefore, as a novelist, Saramago is doing his job. Saramago's vision has been crueler before, notably in

Blindness

, recently filmed, in which an unexpected general affliction leads to a Hobbesian collapse of society. In

Death With Interruptions

, social breakdown has more to do with public relations than public health. The outcome here is, dare I say it, tending toward the romantic.

But the pleasure is not the plot; the pleasure is the sentence-by-sentence progress of Saramago's contemplation of his theme.

Death With Interruptions

is death with other attractions, and Margaret Jull Costa's translation renders them beautifully into witty and idiomatic English.

In her book about writing fiction (still a good guide, I think), Edith Wharton says a novelist's main job is to think about his or her subject thoroughly. If she had said

unexpectedly, charmingly, profoundly, imaginatively

and

simply

, too, she would have been describing José Saramago in

Death With Interruptions

.

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels, including "Ten Days in the Hills."