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“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

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"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

'Death with Interruptions' by Jose Saramago

Death with Interruptions - José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa

The dream of immortality has always fascinated humanity. The dream of eternal life has founded religions that changed the shape of the world. What if it were true?

"The following day, no one died."
So begins José Saramago's Death with Interruptions. In an unnamed small European country without any explanations people have stopped dying - an eternal dream come true, right?

What else can we want now, once the threat of unavoidable demise has been removed seemingly forever, once the unstoppable Grim Reaper seems to have retired?

"Having lived, until those days of confusion, in what they had imagined to be the best of all possible and probable worlds, they were discovering, with delight, that the best, the absolute best, was happening right now, right there, at the door of their house, a unique and marvelous life without the daily fear of parca’s creaking scissors, immortality in the land that gave us our being, safe from any metaphysical awkwardnesses and free to everyone, with no sealed orders to open at the hour of our death, announcing at that crossroads where dear companions in this vale of tears known as earth were forced to part and set off for their different destinations in the next world, you to paradise, you to purgatory, you down to hell."


Well, once the celebrations died down, it quickly becomes obvious that this paradise on earth comes at a price. Immortality is not eternal youth, and ultimately what we have is hundreds and thousands of people suspended on the edge of dying, in the in-between state, neither dead nor alive, caught on the borderline.
"...One must admit that the prospects are not just gloomy, they're terrible, catastrophic, more dangerous by far than anything even the wildest imagination could dream up."
And slowly it sinks in that before long it's not only the undertakers and gravediggers who are out of jobs; not only religion that becomes obsolete as its greatest reward - resurrection - is no longer a big deal (seriously, Saramago's distaste for religion is very prominently underscored and explained in this book); not only the philosophical schools left pointless and speechless; it's generations and generations in"this society torn between the hope of living forever and the fear of never dying" who will have to dedicate themselves to caring for the millions of not-quite-dead; it's the country unprepared to care for the citizens who are no longer free to enjoy the certainty of death. 

Life itself has quickly become the burden - oh how the tables have turned!
"If we don’t start dying again, we have no future."

And all of this is delivered in Saramago's unique rambling narration, with margin-to-margin solid text uninterrupted even by dialogue marks, jumping from topic to topic, zeroing on details and mundane, running in the clustered run-on sentences. It's all delivered in the voice that is both dry and witty, detached yet flourishing, both mocking and serious. It's not an easy style to read, especially in this book, with meandering narration only underscoring the absence of easily definable plot, the absence of characters who we can follow and love and root for. 

It's like an introduction, a leisurely essay stretching for 64% of the book - the story that somehow, despite (or maybe because of!) all this kept the magical charm over me, grounding the most improbable of the storyline in the firm reality anchored by human folly and bureaucracy and greed and crime and incredulity.

And then, almost two-thirds into the story, the mood shifts, the narration abruptly changes, and the new plot emerges, folding violet letters into violet envelopes, confidently raising its head and wondering, Have you missed me? I came to steal your heart. And the strangest love story begins, having nudged the meandering weary satirical narration out of the way.

It's death, the female noun in so many languages, whose whim led to such perturbances in the function of the state and religion and philosophy. It's death, who is surprised at the audacity of a mediocre unremarkable middle-aged musician who refuses to die. It's death, a stranger to failure, who sets out to investigate and to set the matters right, unprepared for what is waiting for her.

"Due to some strange optical phenomenon, real or virtual, death seems much smaller now, as if her bones had shrunk, or perhaps she was always like that, and it's our eyes, wide with fear, that make her look like a giant. Poor death. It makes us feel like going over and putting a hand on her hard shoulder and whispering a few words of sympathy in her ear, or, rather, in the place where her ear once was, underneath the parietal."
It's where Saramago's prose, his entire narration undergoes a fascinating transformation. No, his style does not change. We still have solid blocks of text and meandering ramblings and endless strangely punctuated sentences, but the slow shift in the mood and the feeling subtly creeps up making you look up from the book and wonder - am I still reading the same story? And why do I have those pesky tears glistening in the corners of my eyes? And why can't I stop myself from sighing and quietly saying, "Aww...." at the end?

You know why? Because the guy who wrote this book has received a Nobel Prize in literature for a reason. Because he is brilliant, that's why. And because he decided to play around with this story, leaving us - or at least me - unable to resist its pull.And so I stand by my 5-star rating from a year ago, and begin a desperate hunt for more Saramago books.
"For the first time in her life, death knew what it felt like to have a dog on her lap."