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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