Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago is one strange, yet enlightening literary journey into the concept of mortality. Initially, the prose is overwhelming in that sentences often run the length of an entire page, paragraphs are almost non-existent and grammar rules are largely accepted as suggestions rather than canon. This unorthodox style could be construed as a writer thumbing his nose at the establishment, but lurking beneath every English teacher’s nightmare is the true motive of creating a realistic sense of chaos.
Saramago creates a scenario where for a period of seven months, no one dies. An unnamed omniscient narrator, who is never identified, explains both the immediate and far reaching consequences of immortality. At first people rejoice at the idea that they will live forever, but then there’s the realization that aging, disease, and injury are still part of the human experience. Suddenly death doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, especially for a terminally ill or severely injured person who essentially stuck with pain they know will never go away. An ever-growing population strains governments and economies to the brink of collapse, while invalids push suffering to a whole new level of despair. Humanity descends into a tailspin of confusion that only grows worse with each passing day.
Meanwhile, Death is watching from her lair. She is not evil or playing some cruel joke, but rather she is a sympathetic character who happens to carry a scythe. Bestowing death upon humans is something she takes very seriously, but the task is not something that gives her pleasure. It is merely a necessary part of life that must occur. The interruption in her “services” has to do with her curiosity of human behavior and her own philosophical quandaries.
When she sees the chaos that ensues upon the suspension of death, she reinstitutes the ability to die, but with a catch. One week before someone is scheduled to die, he or she will receive a letter that dictates the date of death. The rationale being, that people will then be able to get their affairs in order before their time comes. Before long, the whole of humanity begins to dread the arrival of Death’s violet colored letters.
In an interesting twist, one of Death’s letters refuses to be delivered. It keeps coming back, never finding it’s a way to a 49-year-old man who is supposed to die. What’s more, he lives past his scheduled expiration date. Death is utterly befuddled as to why and how he has been able to escape his fate. Especially, when she is the one who has the power (and duty) to see that he meets his end. Death assumes the form of a human and sets out to meet him in person. From here, a bittersweet love story unfolds as Death finds herself succumbing to a beautiful and often painful element of the human experience.
The ending is one that leaves more questions than it answers, but it offers an interesting platform for contemplation. In one passage, he describes the hands of a cellist – one hand does the work, while the other gets the applause – to symbolize the relationship between life and death. Both work together in perfect harmony, but one steals the limelight and leaves the other in the shadows. In Saramago’s world, it would behoove us to consider death with a warmer embrace. For without it, we’d fail to see that there is more to life than the state of being alive.