Death, Interrupted

15 12 2008

Death With Interruptions
José Saramago
Harcourt Books
October 2008, 256 pages, $24

By Derek Beres

It remains essential to the paradoxical nature of existence that only an atheist can write so beautiful and meaningful a theological masterpiece as José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. At the time of its 1992 publication, the work was barred against competing in the European Literature Prize by a government crying blasphemy.

The main problem, it seemed, was that Saramago portrayed Christ as an actual human being with real feelings, real problems, real doubt. Unlike what you’d expect from an atheist dealing with religious topics—perhaps we’d prepare for strong-worded refutations—Saramago instead created a heartfelt epic. To this set of eyes, it was more meaningful than the Bible—it taught me more about true Christianity—in that it made the man a man, and therefore accessible, instead of portraying him as some divine cosmonaut that we can never touch.

Saramago has a way of personifying subjects purported to be unfathomable. Take death, for instance, the topic of his latest work. Much like the book that most likely secured him the Nobel Prize for Literature, Blindness, Death with Interruptions shares common traits: there is no location (although it is easy to discern that it is Portugal), and the characters remain nameless. In this latest chapter of his literary quest, there is the cellist, the vigilantes, (and later the maphia—the “ph” distinguishes them from the traditional mafia), the prime minister, the cardinal, and, of course, death—he places emphasis on the lower-case “d”. The only thing we know about death is that she’s a woman and, by the end of the book, actually acquires feelings, not to mention the ability to sleep.

What Saramago loses in specifics he gains in ambiguity, putting readers right where he wants them. This is part of the reason he resisted a movie version of Blindness for so long; it took director Fernando Meirelles years of convincing (and rejection) to get the thumbs up. When something is vague, it is more likely to apply to a broader audience—Saramago’s novels are meditations to be experienced by those willing to journey down the labyrinthine mazes he constructs. He uses only commas and periods, and the occasional colon; dialogue, thought, narrative, first person, third person, these all blend and merge in one continuous monologue of sorts. It is rare to say that any author has found a truly original voice, but Saramago deserves such a citation.

Read the full review on PopMatters.

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The Blindness That Sees

4 11 2008

Blindness
Jose Saramago
Harcourt
September 2008, 334 pages, $15.00

Review by Derek Beres

Considering that this book review is only being assigned due to the theatrical release of the 13-year old Blindness (11 years in English translation), it only makes sense to discuss both film and book. Let me begin by saying that when I read this book for the first time, it immediately became my favorite novel, and I have since read everything this Portuguese author has written.

His Nobel Prize was in good faith—he is one of those rare scribes who has truly found an original voice, redefining literature through his seemingly “ungrammatical” refusal to use any punctuation other than periods and commas. His sentences can last three pages, and yet the reader is never lost, never once not amazed at how one man can create so profound a rumination on universal topics wrapped into the heart and soul of everyman.

This is the major reason why it is impossible to make a film “as good” as the book. The medium of movies creates distance between the characters and the individual. When plastered across the screen, no longer can you understand the unnamed characters in Blindness as differing aspects of one person; no longer do you integrate the emotional and psychic content of each voice as one aspect of yourself.

The movie is symbolic of the Genesis—the one becomes the many, and the many are separate from the one who is yourself. The doctor’s wife is now Julianne Moore, not the strong archetypal feminine motif; the doctor is the dim-witted but lovable (or, at least mostly likable) Mark Ruffalo, not the uncertain persona within each of us capable of self-doubt and deceit.

That said, Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation is outstanding on a number of levels. While I was slightly skeptical entering the theater, I had to remember this is the man who directed City of God and The Constant Gardener. Like those two movies, Blindness is cinematically stunning and mentally stimulating.

Read the full review on PopMatters.