Jose Saramago was a Portuguese writer (1922-2010), and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Saramago’s work was controversial, firstly, by it’s lack of recognised punctuation and grammar in the text and by the fact the writer was an atheist and a communist and his writings were strongly criticised by the Catholic Church and others, so much so that he chose to go into exile in Lanzarote until his death. His work was not really recognised until he was aged sixty. His work drew much praise some considering during his lifetime some considering him to be the greatest living novelist. Death With Interruptions was published in 2005 in Portuguese but translated into English in 2008.
Death With Interruptions is the fictional tale of the end of the concept and reality of the end of death. As the writer himself noted in the book, all the many things that have been said about god and death are just stories, and this is another one. The aim of this essay is to examine and reflect on the nature of living and dying, the reality of the concept of no one dying, the significance of the book on literature together with evidence from the book to support the readers views.
We all live in a world where life and death exist and it’s consequences both to the individual and society as a whole. I, and I suspect most people, seriously do not question they will die at some point in time, in the same way that individuals recognise that others including family, friends will die sometime. However, in the book Death With Interruptions these concepts are seriously challenged and the idea of “not dying” is both thought-provoking and challenging as it forces the reader to actually think and consider what life would really be like if no one was to die as well as the consequences.
Other novelists and writers have considered the possibility of individuals living forever, but few have really considered the concept of no one dying in a country, and Saramago breaks virtually new ground, in his book, although previously other have touched upon the subject but perhaps not in such a challenging, inspiring and direct manner. The book opens in an unspecified inland country sometime in the past. At the stroke of midnight approaching the first of January no one in this unspecified country will die. In the author’s words, “The following day no one died” ( Saramago 1).
In the book I had, like the inhabitants in the novel, thought, initially, living forever was a good prospect. However, the book forced me to really consider this concept and it’s effects on nature and the reality of such a proposition. There, would for example, no need for doctors and medical staff to care for the dying as no one would die. The funeral agencies would be defunct. Insurance companies dealing with payments for those dying would cease to have a function and thousands of job and businesses would go bankrupt. The population would grow and grow and how are these people all to be fed and accommodated without people dying? There would be no need grief and no grieving- the ultimate emotion perhaps? There would be no need for religion or religious faith as most are based on the concept of death and redemption, and as the author notes in the book, the one justification for the existence of all religions is death. The political ramifications of the concept are immense. The Mafia sees a chance for an increase in their power and influence as the state and church authorities do not know what to do, and the author notes in the text, of the shameful capitulations made by the government during their ups and down with the Mafia.
There are other ideas prompted by the book I had to face as well. If no one died there would be a situation where evil dictators, mass murderers and others who would not die and this is frightening. There would be no inheritance benefits for anyone. Of course, the author is being in the first part satirical and mocking especially towards religion but one is virtually compelled to consider the concept of no one dying and it’s consequences which can be troublesome and disturbing, too. The skill of the author is drawing the reader into ideas they are not prepared for and making them consider the reality and meaning of the text. I was struck by the writers ability to consider death as nature and itself as a powerful and real entity, with a character, who has at least temporarily given up such power.
The book can be considered to be in two parts and in the second part of the book the concept of death reasserts itself as politicians and church leaders try to deal with the situation and again the author mocks them noting in the text, that the church has never been asked to explain anything. Death explains, in letters, why she has had a break and the writer refers to death as “she”. Again I was struck by the characterisation of death. “She” has a scythe, the eternal symbol of the grim reaper and converses with it. The nation’s television authorities are advised by her, that normal activities ( that is death will be resumed at the stroke of midnight.)
The striking image in this to me, is the second part of the novel is the portrayal of “death” as a real character who loves and is, after all, not such a bad concept at all. The religious leaders welcome death back as it restores their purpose and justification for existence. Political leaders will no longer have to deal with growing populations and the severe strain on finances of paying pensions and benefits forever. Business is pleased to be able to operate life insurance and businesses and professionals involved in dealing with death can operate again. For individuals too, there is, for example, no more worry of caring for parents who will live forever, and they can experience again the real emotions associated with grief as well as the prospect of perhaps becoming financial beneficiaries with the return of death.
The theme of individual self interest, in all the factions mentioned earlier, is plain for the reader to see and appreciate. Again, the author is both satirical and mocking emphasising the irony of the fact that living forever, when introduced, was, initially, welcomed. Death in the story becomes human and not a concept to be dreaded as previously.
In terms of literary standing, Death With Interruptions, has been the subject of literary praise at the highest level. It is painfully obvious, too, why religious leaders have taken strong exception to the writings. I am reminded of a totally different book by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which is also a parody on the frailties of mankind, it’s institutions as well as individuals generally and uses the same kind of devastating style of irony and exposition of the selfishness of human nature. It,is of course, a work of fiction and has to be treated as such but it is thought-provoking, stimulating and at times quite comical in a wry sort of way. It is fair to say grammarians and purists have attacked the syntax, the punctuation and use of capital in the work but this does not significantly detract from the work. As the author himself notes that, words have their own hierarchy, their own protocol, their own artistic titles, their own plebeian stigmas. In conclusion, the book, like, all good writings, inspires the reader to think and challenge previously held beliefs and concepts of the reader.