Death with Interruptions

On the first day of the new year, no one died.  That is basically the gist of Jose Saramago‘s 2005 novel, Death with Interruptions (or Death at Intervals, depending on where you’re from).

One day, in an unnamed country, death (with a small “d”), decided not to do her job of killing people.  That is not to say that sick or weak people got well though. The sick remained sick, those in a coma remained in a coma, and the weak remained weak – but, none of them died. No one died.

Having discovered the strange occurrence, at first everyone rejoiced thinking that they were being favored with immortality.  But it wasn’t long until people started realizing that immortality wasn’t exactly what it’s cut out to be.  The first ones to see a problem with people never dying was the government, with an ever-growing population as the least of their worries.  Next came those who made a living providing funerary services – undertakers, funeral home owners, tomb and coffin makers; they’d be out of the job, or must resort to burying people’s dead birds, dogs, cats, canaries.  Those in the insurance business were also affected, for obvious reasons, not to mention those who maintained home for the elderly. Those in the business of religion were also affected, for without death, what good would it do to believe in God?

After realizing that immortality was not without its consequences, many families who wanted to get rid of their elderly or sick members solved their problems by simply crossing the border to the neighboring country, where death was still happening on a regular basis.  This, of course posed new problems, not just for the government of country of the seemingly immortal, but also for the government of their neighboring countries.  But just before things started to get too chaotic in the country where no one died, death (with a small “d”) decided, by sending a letter in a purple envelope to the director of television, to restore order and go back to work.  Her first act was to kill, at the stroke of midnight, everyone who was scheduled to die before she went on furlough.  She also informed everyone that because she had been hearing a lot of complaints from humanity about how unfair she was in taking lives suddenly,  she would send everyone a letter notifying them of their impending death a week before the were scheduled to die.  This would give them time to say their goodbyes, pay their back taxes, write their wills, and do everything they wanted to do before they died.  Thinking her idea fair and thoughtful, she was unaware how much panic her purple-enveloped letters actually caused the public.  Those who received her purple envelopes didn’t say goodbye to their friends and families, or pay their back taxes or make any wills – instead they engaged in loose and lascivious activities, thinking that it was their last chance at doing things they had always wanted but was always afraid to.

But what happens when one of her letters get rejected and get sent back to her?  And no matter how many times she sends it, it always gets sent back?  Is such a thing even possible?  Is it possible to reject death?

Death with Interruptions is a funny and whimsical (if you can use those two words to describe anything having to do with death) novel that provides answers to the age-old question “What if, no one ever died?”  Immortality is something that people have always wanted to attain, but, if you really thought about it, in the long run, is it really good for humanity, and for the earth?  The novel also highlights humanity’s fickleness, tenacity, and flexibility when making seemingly moral or ethical choices.   Death with Interruption seems like the product of an author contemplating the different aspects of death – both pros and cons.  By making light of the consequences of death, Saramago might have been trying to come to grips with his on own mortality.  Saramago tries to humanize and demystify death by showing that though she is ubiquitous and powerful, she is also capable of feeling perplexed, confused, pity, and love.

Death with Interruptions is the first successful Saramago novel I’ve read. I’ve tried reading some of his other novels before, but I was put off by his stream of consciousness style of writing.  That is not to say that Death with Interruptions is not stream of consciousness.  It is.  It is made up of strange sentences lacking many punctuation marks such as commas, question marks, exclamation marks, and quotation marks.  Lacking proper punctuation marks, it also does not use a lot of capitalization of proper nouns.  This style is confusing, to say the least, but it also had the strange effect of making me read faster, since there were no punctuation marks except for periods to slow me down.  To make more sense of the prose, I had to consciously slow down and pause where I thought a comma should be.

As I was saying….after trying and failing to read Saramago’s novels, I was more than ready to give up on him entirely.  That is, until I read his short memoir about his childhood, Small Memories.  This too, was stream of consciousness, but because the subject of the memoir were fleeting memories of his childhood, his signature writing style only enhanced the ephemeral effect of the novel.  Small Memories re-kindled my interest in Saramago, so I decided to give him another chance.  I’m glad I did.  Death with Interruptions was a fascinating, funny, novel, that makes light our fears of death and dying, while imparting that death is a natural part of life, and to suddenly stop it would be disastrous to humanity.


Death with Interruptions (2005) – Jose Saramago

Mariner; 234 pages (paperback)

Personal rating:  4/5

10 thoughts on “Death with Interruptions

  1. I’ve not read any of his work yet though I have a couple on my TBR shelf. This is an odd idea but it does make you ask the question in the light of medical advances to prolong life.

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