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Death with Interruptions
Death with Interruptions
Jose Saramago
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
256 pp., 29.33

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by Joseph Bottum


Aesop Gone to Seed

The new novel by Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago.

The second half of José Saramago's latest novel—but do you know who José Saramago is? The question is not facetious. Certainly, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, but Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson won it, too, in 1903, and Frans Eemil Sillanpää in 1939, and Dario Fo in 1997, and who's ever actually read a word of any of them?

The Nobel Prize in Literature is no guarantee of perpetual fame, or even somewhat extended fame, among ordinary readers, and to the extent that Saramago exists at all in the popular imagination these days, ten years after his Nobel Prize, it's mostly as a vaguely familiar name appearing as one of the signatures on some manifesto or another, usually denouncing the existence of Israel, the imperialism of the United States, or the prudery of the Catholic Church, and sometimes all three, on the unlikely occasions when that's possible, and did I mention his prose is notable for its eccentrically punctuated sentences that run on and on for whole paragraphs and often whole pages?

Anyway, the second half of Saramago's latest novel—and yet, novel isn't exactly the word. Death with Interruptions is really more of a fable, or, at least, a fabulism, since the word fable brings to mind Aesop and La Fontaine and something like "The Hare and the Tortoise." The modern writers of fabulisms are willing to employ the conventions of the old fables: talking animals and ghosts and easy metamorphoses, for example, together with personified abstractions—death, for instance, who appears as a character, a woman who writes stern letters in purple ink, midway through Saramago's Death with Interruptions. But modern fabulists also typically reject the concluding morals that define the genre of fables, preferring to end their stories instead with ambiguity and guesswork. Not that these writers aren't highly moralistic, in their way; they tend, with rather too much ease and self-congratulation, to aim their barbs at all the usual targets—that whole Israeli-American-Catholic thing, to take an example not entirely at random—and someday I'm actually going to finish the essay I have half-written somewhere in my computer on "The High Moral Dudgeon of Pretending to Be an Amoralist."

Still, novel or fable or fabulism, call it what you will: The truth is that the second half of José Saramago's latest book—but perhaps we haven't quite said enough about fabulism, which really began in English literature when the Edwardians started writing what is perhaps best described as very odd children's fiction for adults.

Think of G.K. Chesterton's inexplicable The Man Who Was Thursday in 1908, for example, or Ronald Firbank's campy Valmouth in 1918. From there, the peculiar genre passed through the sternly logical illogicality of the Argentinean non-Nobel Prize-winner Jorge Luis Borges, a besotted admirer of Chesterton, and from Borges it went on to become something like the definition of Latin American literature—remember "magic realism"?—through the works of such writers as the Guatemalan Miguel &Aecute;ngel Asturias and the Columbian Gabriel García Márquez (also Nobel laureates).

A hop and a skip back home across the ocean, and you get the pure fabulism of José Saramago. In his 1995 novel Blindness, for example (the basis for the current film directed by Fernando Meirelles), an entire country is stricken blind, with unhappy results. In his 1986 The Stone Raft, Portugal and Spain break lose from Europe and sail aimlessly around the Atlantic. And in his 1984 The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, one of the pseudonyms of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa finds itself alive for a year after its creator dies.

But the mention of Fernando Pessoa, the odd and wonderful poet whose work before his untimely death in 1935 has become the centerpiece of modern Portuguese literature, reminds me that, in describing the second half of José Saramago's latest book, we also haven't said quite enough about José Saramago himself—for he is a very Portuguese writer: lusophone and lusocentric, to borrow, pretentiously, from Lusitania, the old Latin name for the province of Portugal. Born in 1922, to parents named de Sousa in a village a hundred miles north of Lisbon, he reportedly picked up the last name Saramago (which means "wild radish") through a mistake on his birth certificate. A Communist newspaper editor for much of his career, he found international recognition only at age 55, with the publication of Baltasar and Blimunda, his 1987 love story centered around the building of the Convent of Mafra, Portugal's largest and most famous Baroque building. Baltasar and Blimunda was not, by any means, a bad story—primarily because the easy moralism of his anti-moralism was far more repressed than in, say, his self-satisfied 1991 paean to atheism, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

For that matter, his new book, Death with Interruptions, is also not, by any means, a bad story. In the second half of the book—and, yes, let us arrive, at last, at the point I've been trying to reach for some while now: a discussion of the second half of José Saramago's latest tale, although  Saramago himself constantly employs this over-cute device of punting, further and further down the page, the plot element that he promises, over and over, to reveal. It is—along with his trademark refusal to use quotation marks and his idiosyncratic notions about capitalization—the most annoying feature of his otherwise surprisingly enjoyable prose.

But arrive at the point, eventually he does, and in the second half of Death with Interruptions, José Saramago writes a competent and unimportant little fabulism about death as a woman who falls in love with a 49-year-old cellist in a Portuguese symphony orchestra. In the first half of Death with Interruptions, Saramago writes a more significant but also more incompetent fabulism about death as a woman who, one New Year's Day, decides to experiment by allowing no one to die in the nation of Portugal.

And the combination of these two halves makes for a disaster of a book—a fun, pleasant, easy-to-read disaster, admittedly, but the world is full of fun, pleasant, easy-to-read fantastical tales. Try the 19th-century American Frank R. Stockton, if that's the kind of writing you want to indulge. Does anyone still read Stockton? He worked for years with Mary Mapes Dodge as an editor on Saint Nicholas Magazine, that exemplar of middle-class late-Victorian children's taste, and he wrote a first-rate gentle humoresque in 1897 called Rudder Grange, about housekeeping on a houseboat. But he was, in his day, best known for his small fantasies: "The Griffin and the Minor Canon," for instance, and "The Bee-Man of Orn," and especially "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

The point here is not that Frank R. Stockton is a better writer than José Saramago; it is merely that, if this sort of stuff is to your taste, "The Lady, or the Tiger?" will seem no worse than either half of Death with Interruptions, and yet no one ever thought of nominating Stockton for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was too conventional—but, then, so is Saramago, although the conventions have much changed. Stockton was too ready to employ the easy tropes of fabulous literature—but then, Saramago does the same. The problem, really, is that Frank R. Stockton's works were just too insubstantial to take very seriously—and what does that leave us to say about the Nobel Prize-winning José Saramago and his latest book, Death with Interruptions?

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.

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