Death with Interruptions – The Immortality of José Saramago
by Adriana Gomes
José Saramago writes with intent. Nothing is laid on the page that doesn’t have a purpose and a meaning, being it social or political. He’s a critic of the way we live, interact, communicate, love, work, make decisions, and die. He doesn’t come across as judgmental though; his distinctive narrative voice has the gift of self-deprecating, ironic humor. He is part of the “we” and he wears his humanity bare on the pages of his books. It wouldn’t be otherwise in Death with Interruptions, a novel he wrote at eighty five years old, right after battling a severe bout of pneumonia that nearly killed him, where death is the main character. Through his masterful weave of individual and collective perspectives he throws us into an elliptical vortex of earthly considerations and lands us in the ever repeating, never ending cycle of life and death; showing us that as Humanity we are immortal. And as his unique voice and literary, timeless genius remain capable of influencing society, so is he. For after all, “Our minds consist of storytelling” (Wilson, p. 167), and “the eternal is discovered in history” (Bryson, p. 163).
José Saramago’s social and political views come from his growing up knowing poverty and social unrest intimately. He was born in 1922 to a family of peasants in Azinhagua, a small village some sixty miles northeast of Lisbon in Portugal. He was supposed to have his father’s name, José de Souza, a common Portuguese name like John Smith in the United States, but the registrar gave him Saramago as his last name. Saramago was the nickname his family had in the village, “saramago is a wild herbaceous plant that nourished the poor in hard times” (Saramago, Nobel Prize – Biographical, 1998), a true mark of poverty. Only when he needed an identification document to enroll in primary school, did he and his family learn his full name, José de Souza Saramago. Through a trick of destiny, his family’s nickname was immortalized by his literary body of work.
His rise from peasant to prominent writer wasn’t a sudden occurrence. His education was quite unorthodox for a writer. Saramago was two years old when his family moved to Lisbon in search of a better life, where his father managed to get a job as a policeman thanks to his World War I’s service as an artillery soldier in France. At twelve, although he was a good student in grammar school, his parents couldn’t afford it and sent him to a technical school where he studied mechanics. He felt lucky that besides its technically oriented curriculum, the school syllabus included French and a class in literature. He graduated at seventeen and for two years he worked as a mechanic at a car repair shop. His evenings were spent at the Lisbon Library. It was there, without help or guidance that he developed and refined his reading through his natural curiosity. When he was nineteen he thought he would like to become a writer and in 1947, being only twenty three years old, he published his first book, Land of Sin. He wasn’t particularly impressed with himself though. He believed he had no life experience and stated that the novel “was the product of books, as a writer learns to write by reading” (Foundas, July 29, 2010).
During the subsequent 20 years he didn’t write any books, but had an extraordinary path that looking back makes it easy to understand why “he wrote with the certainty of an enlightened man” (Foundas, July 29, 2010). After his years as a mechanic he became a civil servant working in social welfare. In 1949 he lost his job for political reasons and thanks to the kindness of an old teacher found a job at a metal company. In the late nineteen fifties he found work as a production manager in a publishing company where he made the acquaintance of many important Portuguese writers of the time. From 1955 until 1981, to supplement his family budget and for pleasure, he did extra work translating foreign authors such as: “Colette, Par Lagerkvist, Jean Cassou, Maupassant, André Bonnard, Tolstoi, Baudelaire, Étienne Balibar, Nikos Poulantzas, Henri Focillon, Jacques Roumain, Hegel and Raymond Bayer, among others” (Saramago, Nobel Prize – Biographical, 1998). He also worked as a literary critic from the beginning of 1967 all through 1968.
After leaving the publishing company in 1971 he worked for two years as manager of the cultural supplement, and editor, to Diário de Lisboa, a newspaper from Lisbon. In 1974 he published “The Opinions of The DL Had,” that represented a critic to the Portuguese dictatorship toppled in April 1975, when he became director of the morning paper Diário de Notícias. He was sacked from that job in the aftermath of the politico-military coup of November 25th which blocked the leftist revolutionary reform. Even though he had been writing articles, poems, and doing translations, only then, unemployed and without the slightest chance of finding a job, he decided to devote himself to literature. “Being fired was the best luck of my life… It made me stop and reflect. It was the birth of my life as a writer” (New York times Magazine, 2007). He was almost sixty when, in 1977, he published Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, inspired by the notes he published in the Diário de Notícias. In it death makes its first appearance as the painter H. tells “he’s been obsessed with death since his adolescence” (Saramago, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, p. 1245).
In his 1995 bestseller, Blindness, death is everywhere as an epidemic of sightlessness reduces the human race to its most primitive state. And in The Year of The Death of Ricardo Reis, an exiled doctor returns to Lisbon to spend his last months in life.
Unquestionably, death is a recurrence in Saramago’s books, and so it is that as he ages he sees as natural to face it with humor, dark humor that is. In Death with Interruptions, starting at midnight in the first of January no one died. Initially there was a justifiable anxiety, after all that had never occurred in the history of mankind. After twenty four hours passed, still no one died. No matter how terrible a car crash, the broken and bloodied the bodies, the victims wouldn’t die, they remained in a state of what seemed like an eternal comma. Those ready to let out their last breath, stayed stagnant, even the Queen Mother.
From the first pages Saramago’s ironic, self-deprecating voice shines as he pinpoints journalists’ gift for exploitation. He describes that an initial general euphoria, fueled by tabloids and newspapers alike, who have the “ability, when it suits them, to make events seem even more major then they really are” (4), took over the population. The headline “New Year, New Life” (8) resonated with many that felt that as “the long shadow of thanatos” (15) was no longer a constant threat, “life now truly is beautiful” (15). His take on the news media is particularly poignant if we consider his own tenure as a newsman in Portugal. He certainly knows what he’s writing about.
The Roman Catholic Apostolic Church though, questioned the insanity of the prospect of immortality which would go starkly against its dogmas, “without death there is no resurrection, without resurrection, there is no church… And God would never will his own demise” (10). But much more difficult to manage than the passive aggressive church leaders, “Good night, your eminence, I wish you a peaceful, restoring night’s sleep, Good night, prime minister, and if death does decide to return tonight, I hope she doesn’t think to visit you” (13), were those who oversaw the practicalities of life. The government was immediately confronted by the problems that would ensue from “death strike” (5), and an ever aging population forming an “ever growing mass of old people at the top swallowing like a python the new generations” (24). The funeral homes who had been “rudely deprived of their raw material” (17) were the first to complain. They demanded subsidies to help them adapt to the new circumstances and implement a plan to making the burying of pets mandatory, as the death responsible for them was still very much active. They would need “a complete reformulation of traditional techniques, for it’s not the same thing to bury a human and to carry to its final resting place a cat or a canary, or indeed a circus elephant or a bathtub crocodile” (18). This sentence exemplifies Saramago’s extraordinary sense of humor as he’s faced with the decrepitude of his own body, “It’s not that I’m laughing at death, but why take it so seriously?” (Foundas, July 29, 2010).
The country embarks in a spiral of collective and individual crises. The hospices and hospitals can’t cope with the endless increase in deathly sick, undead patients and it’s decided that if nothing can be done, when there’s no possibility of cure or any improvement, patients should go back home and be cared by their families. As families and individuals are faced with the challenges the responsibility for taking care for their immortal sick brings, even though not socially accepted, death is seen as a necessary evil. And taking those in suspended life on journeys across the borders of foreign neighbors, where death is still active, becomes a trend. Pressured by the neighboring countries, and trying to curb the illegal export, the government puts in place a secret-service-like organization to watch over the population at large. Enters the mafia and through a comically complex negotiation with the government it puts together a smuggling operation that after some refinement takes the sick out and brings back bodies to be properly dealt by the funeral homes, happy to be back in the dead human business. And as long as bodies are unidentified, so no one knows who sent their dearly to be departed, no one can go through the embarrassment of being publicly judged.
At the end of seven months, death comes to the conclusion that her experiment failed miserably, “both from the moral, that is, philosophical point of view, and from the pragmatic, that is social point of view” (109), and declares that she will resume her regular activities, but with a change she innocently, if death can be called so, believes will be appreciated. She decides that, instead of sneaking up on people, she will send a letter notifying them they will irrevocably die in one week. Offering them time “to put what remains of their life in order, to make a will and say goodbye to their family, asking forgiveness for any wrong done and making peace with the cousin they haven’t spoken to for twenty years” (110). After some unpreventable social unrest we come to the end of the first part of the novel, which isn’t clearly marked as Saramago’s most distinctive books have no chapter titles and no index. He only uses commas and periods to punctuate his stories, no hyphens, or semicolons, and no quotation marks on dialogues. In the first part of Death with Interruptions this free flowing sequence of sentences contributes to the anxiety and chaos he describes, transmitting a sense of urgency that relates closely to the theme of the story. His wry, self-deprecating sense of humor comes across throughout the pages, but never more so than when a newspaper edits death’s letter to the public on the eve of her return to regular activities, where she lets the population know she will be killing all who have been prevented from dying in the previous seven months on the stroke of midnight. A grammarian contracted by the said newspaper gets further into trouble when he states that “death had failed to master the rudiments of the art of writing, given the chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter” (122), which is exactly how Saramago writes. Exasperated, death sends the respected grammarian an individual letter threatening to issue his one week notice years ahead of its predestined date. Needless to say a retraction accompanied by the original death’s letter is published immediately.
Intricate to his prose is a constant exchange with his readers, “You might think” (59), he starts an unmarked chapter addressing us, readers, directly. And he doesn’t make many changes. He doesn’t write drafts, “ninety percent of my work is in the first writing I put down” (Barroso, 1997). Instead of going back and adjusting a paragraph many times he choses to include the readers in his decision to change, at times simply rectifying a bad call in an earlier chapter, “The protagonist of these dramatic events, described in unusually detailed fashion in a story which has, so far, preferred to offer the curious reader, if we may put it so, a panoramic view of the facts, were, when they unexpectedly entered the scene, given the social classification of poor country folk. This mistake, the result of an overhasty judgement on the part of the narrator, based on an assessment which was, at best, superficial, should, out of respect for the truth, be rectified” (41). This passage showcases some of his hallmark stylistic choices and exemplify the intimate relationship he builds with his readers through his writing.
Saramago’s political critique is stark when, in the balance of reading Death with Interruptions’ first part, we clearly see that the country leaders’ “worries and anxieties always highlighted logistical rather than health matters” (19). We can also pinpoint his preoccupation with the future of his continent where a social security crisis fueled by an aging population looms in the horizon, “if a certain proportion of the active population are paying their national insurance, and a certain proportion of the inactive population are retired, either for reasons of old age or disability, and therefore drawing on the active population for their pensions, and the active population is constantly on the decrease with the respect of the inactive population, and the inactive population is constantly on the increase, it’s hard to understand why no one saw at once that the disappearance of death, apparently the peak, the pinnacle, the supreme happiness, was not, after all, a good thing” (83). In Death with Interruptions, as in all his other books, Saramago writes with purpose, no opportunity to pinpoint social issues is wasted.
As he enters the second part of the book one of death’s letters is returned. Confused, she goes to investigate who could have possibly escaped her infallibility and falls in love with a cellist. The symbolism of the artist living side by side with death, at first not knowing it, and then in an intimate relationship with her, is striking. It is in the second part that we also learn of death’s detailed files on each and every one of us, true to NSA’s real time style surveillance technology. The clear parallel leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that, like death, anything with that kind of absolute power can’t be good for us.
José Saramago used his notoriety to enlighten and advance causes of social justice. His choices in life were made wittingly and purposefully to bring upon a positive impact through his work as a writer. His unique voice is strikingly distinguishable. As a storyteller he is a Nobel Prize winner. When choosing the themes for his books, he is a timeless commentator of humanity. He himself believed that “a writer’s definitive death is when no one reads his books anymore. That’s the final death” (Foundas, July 29, 2010). Well then, if the new paradigm of immortality says that “a person isn’t a soul or a body, or even an amalgam of body and soul since the person does not exist in the absence of relationships” (Bryson, p. 171), and “our minds consist of storytelling” (Wilson), and “only in history we become eternal” (Bryson), so José Saramago is immortal, as Shakespeare, Joyce and Pessoa, forever in a relationship with his readers, truly alive in the pages of his books.
José Saramago, Death with Interruptions
(2007). New York times Magazine.
Barroso, D. (1997). José Saramago, The Art of Fiction No. 155. The Paris Review.
Bryson, K. A. (n.d.). Persons and Immortality. Editions Rodopi Amsterdam – Atlanta GA.
Foundas, S. (July 29, 2010). José Saramago: Death Interrupted (Extended Version) Transcript of Interview from 2008. LA Weekly, 3/7.
Saramago, J. (1998). Nobel Prize – Biographical. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1998/saramago-bio.html.
Saramago, J. (n.d.). Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. Harcourt, Kindle Edition.
Wilson, E. O. (n.d.). The Meaning of Human Existence. Liveright Publishing Corporation.
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