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Death With Interruptions

Death With Interruptions

Author:Jose Saramago
Release Date:2008

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 12/17/2008

As a literary genre, magical realism abhors mass specificity. Best to keep things fairly vague; all the better to present the story as a fable or allegory. Jose Saramago--Nobel Prize for Literature-winning author and octogenarian--knows this well. His 1998 Blindness and 2007 Seeing--his best-known novels--found the Portuguese writer playing mad scientist with the populace of an unnamed country, dispatching a plague of short-term blindness and baffling its government with a surfeit of blank ballots on election day. After setting these catastrophes in motion, Saramago delights in omnisciently tracking the horrific outcomes as benign mundanity begets the nakedly implausible. Nameless, panicked politicians dither and delegate, often with blackly comedic results; normal folks struggle to overcome deeply weird circumstances; readers are sucked into the surreal action and left to wonder how they'd cope.

So it goes with Death With Interruptions, where death takes a holiday and the citizenry in a different country quickly and collectively loses its shit. The first half finds Saramago in his usual fine, rhetorical form, thoroughly exploring political probabilities, philosophical and mercantile reactions, and so on. The life insurance industry faces extinction, but deftly sidesteps it. For a small fortune, the "Maphia" transports the terminal and infirm to neighboring countries, where they die upon entry. The government, while pretending to oppose such measures, eventually reaches a secret agreement with the underworld. The various guilds that profit from mortality--funeral directors, undertakers, coffin makers, and the like--survive by ushering pets into the next world. Plans are drawn up for the establishment of additional nursing homes and long-term care facilities to house an anticipated future population of elderly patients, though there are worries that eventually the perpetually infirm will outnumber the caretakers. A fervent, flag-waiving nationalism emerges from the deathless melee. Then a mysterious lavender ransom note materializes in a television director's office overnight, and events take an even stranger turn.

Saramago's death is the cloaked, skeletal, scythe-baring apparition of the popular imagination with a twist: a bored, restless cog in a vast, bureaucratic apparatus. Death's introduction mid-way in lards Interruptions into something a mite too specific, shrugging off the ensuing chaos in favor of a routine errand turned an extended, unlikely digression. Worse, Saramago is overly impressed with himself here, ballooning his asides to the point of outright hubris and actively addressing his shrouded protagonist in passages. A tale that constantly reminds readers that it's a tale baits and gambles with its audience, and as Interruptions progresses, Saramago increasingly comes so close to the fourth-wall-smashing edge that it feels like he doesn't even care whether we're with him until the last page or not.

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