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Death with Interruptions
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
238 pp., $24.00
by Joseph Bottum
Aesop Gone to Seed
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 ...